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More Than 12 Million Kids Could Lose Access to Free Breakfast at School

Photograph by Twenty20

If your kid was one of the millions of children in the U.S. who doesn't have access to a morning meal at home, but was able to get a free, hearty breakfast each day at school, you'd probably be pretty upset if someone wanted to take it away from them.

Hunger is still a problem for many families across the U.S. In 2015, an estimated 13.1 million children were living in food-insecure homes and likely going to school hungry. Childhood hunger is linked to poor performance at school, including lower test scores and acting out in the classroom (which can distract other students from learning), making it a problem that impacts everyone.

For millions of children across the country, their hunger became a little less burdensome by an Obama-era program known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a piece of the The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which aimed to make school meals free for all students in high-poverty districts, even those whose families didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Since it began in 2010, a record number of school-age children have relied on these meals for nourishment during the school day.

A study by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) shows the CEP has made huge strides for food-insecure families. Consecutively for the last six years, more low-income children than ever before are receiving free breakfasts. To date, an estimated 12 million children from low-income families are eating breakfast at school, which is an increase of 50 percent from 10 years ago.

And sadly, some legislators want to do away with these programs.

With President Trump looking to make meaningful cuts to the federal budget to bolster military and national security spending, these programs—which so many families rely on—might be on the chopping block in the very near future. If Republicans are successful at shutting down a program that has made strides to feed our country’s hungriest school kids, these families will literally be left hungry.

An estimated 12 million children are eating free breakfast at school, which is an increase of 50 percent from 10 years ago.

Unfortunately, cutting these funds for school breakfast and meals aren't going to make a sizable dent in the budget; in 2012, the School Breakfast Program cost $3.3 billion to feed more than 12.9 million kids who participated every day. The National School Lunch Program cost $11.6 billion to feed more than 31.6 million kids who participated daily in 2012.

To give those numbers some perspective, in President Obama's final budget proposal for 2017, $42.5 billion out of a $4.15 trillion budget was dedicated to foreign aid—making it only about 1 percent of the total federal budget. The school breakfast and lunch programs combined add up to much less than what we spend in foreign aid.

While free food is a wonderful incentive for low-income students, there’s often a stigma associated with receiving it. Embarrassment at being singled out as "poor" may be the reason some low-income families don’t participate in the program (or turn in their applications) to begin with. That’s why the CEP made perfect sense. In high areas of poverty, all students, regardless of their family income, would qualify for free meals.

Six of the 10 states that rely heaviest on the School Breakfast Program to provide nutrition for eligible students are red states. In West Virginia, 84 out of 100 kids eat free school breakfast. Now, the same constituents who were in favor of this new administration may find their children are negatively impacted by it.

Perhaps more interesting is just who the cuts will affect the most. The same study by the FRAC shows that the state with the highest ratio of children receiving free and reduced price school meals is West Virginia, with 83.9 children per 100 benefitting from the program. West Virginia is, by all accounts, a Republican state.

In fact, of the top 10 states using the CEP, six are predominately red states that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, including Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas. Now, the same constituents who were in favor of this new administration may find their children are negatively impacted by it.

It is unclear if or when changes may happen to the CEP just yet, but FRAC and many families that rely on the School Breakfast Program—which ultimately exists to help children succeed—hope for the sake of hungry kids that it will remain intact.

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