March 01, 2011

Foster Children Eligible for Free School Meals

Howard A. Davidson

Improving child nutrition is an important step towards improving the well-being of abused and neglected children. First Lady Michele Obama powerfully advocated for Congress to pass a new child nutrition law before it adjourned late last year.  Thanks to her efforts, foster and kinship care children may now receive access to free nutritional food at school.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-296) was enacted on December 13, 2010. The Act, in Section 102, amends a key provision of the National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1758) to make any foster child categorically eligible, without an application, for free school meals. The meals are available to a child whose “care and placement is the responsibility (of an agency that administers a state IV-B or IV-E plan)” or if a “court has placed (the child) with a caretaker household.”

In a letter issued January 31, 2011 to child nutrition program directors across the country, Cynthia Long, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (DOA) child nutrition division, indicated that all a local educational agency need receive is documentation from an appropriate state or local child welfare agency indicating that a child is a foster child under state responsibility or has been placed in a caretaker household by a court. These provisions, according to her letter, are effective as of October 1, 2010.

In addition to all foster children placed by a child welfare agency being eligible (regardless of whether they are IV-E qualified), under the new provisions a child placed by a court into a kinship home or other “caretaker” household would also be eligible.

Long urges school systems to implement this as soon as possible, and not to wait until the next school year. DOA will be providing “prototype applications” for foster/kinship children, and supporting materials, to all state child nutrition programs in the near future, and they are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to notify state child welfare agencies of this legal development. Long’s letter also urges the nutrition directors to reach out to their child welfare agencies to develop or strengthen communications that will help facilitate local implementation.

Children’s advocates and judges can help ensure children benefit from the law by asking at court hearings whether children are accessing these free meals. They can also make sure their local child welfare agency staff are aware of the law and their role in providing documentation of foster children’s status to local education agencies.

Staff at the ABA Center on Children and the Law will be monitoring implementation of this new law.

Howard A. Davidson is the director of the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.