In an effort to address child hunger and food insecurity in the United States, the Obama Administration announced the launch of a pilot program that certifies students eligible for free or reduced-price in-school lunches automatically if their families’ collect Medicaid benefits.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), millions of children whose families qualify for Medicaid are not enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides free and reduced-price in-school meals to children from low-income families. By certifying children whose families collect Medicaid benefits automatically, the burdensome application process imposed upon already-qualifying families in need—and upon schools to participate in the program—is removed, making it easier for hungry children to access food.
The program, which enjoyed a small-scale test drive in seven locations around the country, has already garnered positive results. Test site New York City, for example, experienced a 7 percent boost in enrollment, an increase Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack predicts will only continue to rise. “That’s just free lunches,” said Vilsack. “The new expanded program is going to include reduced-price lunches, too, so we know that that 7 percent number is only going to go up.” Citing success stories like New York City, Vilsack hopes to extend the program to five states next school year, building to 20 states the year after, and eventually expanding nationwide.
With 15.3 million children facing hunger in the US and more than 21.5 million low-income children receiving free or reduced-price lunches in 2014 alone, the need for an initiative like the Obama administration announced Wednesday could not be more critical.
“We know that the program works, and we want to expand it,” said Vilsack. “Many children who are eligible for free and reduced lunch meals aren’t enrolled in the program – this is going to help ensure that they receive the benefits, too.”