Every day, millions of students across the U.S. walk into school with stomachs growling because they haven’t had enough to eat either that morning or the night before and eagerly anticipate getting a school breakfast. Hours later, when the lunch bell rings, the same students jet to the front of the line to make sure they get enough food to tide them over until their next meal. For many students, school meals are not a luxury or a backup in case they forget to pack a meal; they are a lifeline.
At a time when 8.6 million U.S. children lack consistent access to food at home, the availability of nutritious meals at school is more important than ever. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) provides an opportunity for schools to not only feed more kids, but can help with the bottom line.
CEP became available nationwide in the 2014-2015 school year. It allows schools in low-income areas to offer meals to all students at no cost. Schools that participate in CEP no longer collect individual applications from households for free and reduced-price meals. Instead, information from other need-based programs (such as SNAP or TANF) is used to determine the level of funding schools receive for meals programs, and schools are only responsible for covering any difference between that funding and the total program costs. Participation is voluntary, so local administrators decide whether CEP makes financial and practical sense for their schools.
Some administrators assume that providing no-cost meals to all students under the provision will be a financial drain that they cannot afford. But administrators at many of the 14,000 schools around the nation that participate in CEP disagree. One administrator called CEP a “financial win/win for the district and our families.”
When the Port Huron School District in Michigan participated in the CEP pilot program in 2011–2012, nine of their 20 schools participated. Now, they participate in CEP districtwide. Since 2011-2012, participation in the school lunch program has increased from 49 percent to 61 percent, and school breakfast participation more than doubled. Food Service Director Mary Kurkowski explained that CEP reduced the meal programs’ administrative costs by simplifying processes and paperwork. “We no longer have to process free and reduced applications, conduct verifications, or worry about negative balances on student accounts.” Port Huron schools served more than 1.5 million federally reimbursable meals last year alone. This, combined with reduced overhead costs and careful budgeting, resulted in an increase in revenue, which Port Huron uses to improve its overall meal service. Kurkowski recommends that school food service directors take the time to estimate how CEP would financially impact their programs before jumping to conclusions; USDA’s Estimator tool can help.
In addition to financial benefits, Port Huron schools report that CEP eliminated the stigma associated with receiving free meals, and by reducing administrative burden, it also gives staff more time to devote to planning menus, promoting nutrition, and accommodating special diet requests. Most importantly, CEP has significantly contributed to the students’ academic success. According to Kurkowski, “The students are fueled, alert, and ready to learn.”
Stay tuned for future posts on how other districts made CEP work for them.