No Such Thing As A Free Lunch? A Three Part Analysis Of Free School Meal Programs Under The Community Eligibility Provision

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Community Eligibility Provision
Food Insecurity
School meals
School meals
Education Policy
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Davis, Rebecca A

Traditional federal school meals help mitigate food insecurity among students (Hinrichs, 2010) but do not fully eliminate it. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a federal attempt to expand access to school meals in areas of targeted need. Schools that opt into CEP offer meals at no cost to all students regardless of individual need, thus replacing free and reduced-price meal applications. However, by virtue of the funding design, schools with lower levels of documented poverty are financially disincentivized from participating in CEP and despite promising benefits, many of these schools do not take up the program. Importantly, even though these schools demonstrate “lower” need, their needs may still be persistent and severe as qualification standards may under-diagnose poverty, especially in specific communities. I conduct a three-part analysis of CEP. Part one is a systematic review of existing CEP literature. CEP has shown promise in initial research to benefit students with positive outcomes on student participation in meal programs, improved nutrition quality, improved test scores, and improved attendance and taken cumulatively, indicate a reduction in anti-poverty stigma. In part two, I conduct a novel analysis of schools that opt into CEP before subsequently opting out. I find that students miss more school when CEP is taken away, an effect driven largely by students who are economically disadvantaged. In part three, I analyze the economic implications of policy proposals that expand or contract CEP. Results indicate that CEP could be expanded to provide access to nearly 20 million more students with a net federal school meal expenditure change of between 11-15.3%. Taken together, CEP is a program that benefits economically disadvantaged students in spite of a sliding scale finance schedule that disadvantages schools. Policy changes that would improve this sliding scale feature are reasonably feasible and would impact millions of economically disadvantaged students. These analyses are timely, given recent interest in the expansion of CEP and have the potential to contribute to important conversations on the future of federal school meal policy.

Brooks Bowden
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