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Community Eligibility: Flexibility is Key

Posted by Janna Raudenbush, Public Affairs Specialist, Food and Nutrition Service in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
A woman providing school meals to a child
CEP reduces school districts’ paperwork and administrative burden, giving schools more time and resources to improve their meal service.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last several years about the nutrition of school meals – where the ingredients come from, how they’re prepared, what the food tastes like, and how the meal is presented.  These are all important conversations for elevating the quality of school food service and improving the health and wellbeing of children nationwide.  But it’s also important to remember one of the most vital purposes of offering school meals: fighting hunger so kids can focus on learning. 

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a tool high-poverty schools can use to fight childhood hunger.  It allows schools in low-income areas to serve meals to all students at no cost, eliminating individual household applications for free and reduced-price meals and increasing access to nutritious food.

It’s been just one year since CEP became available nationwide, and already more than half of all eligible schools have elected to participate.  The decision to implement CEP is made by the school district, taking into consideration the make-up of their student body, the financial and practical implications of participating, and the many potential benefits.  Because each school’s situation is unique, flexibility is key.  That’s why districts are given many options for if, when, and how they implement the provision in their schools.

For example, school districts may choose to implement CEP districtwide, within a group(s) of schools, or at an individual school depending on which schools are eligible and would benefit from participation.  At least 40 percent of the student body must directly qualify for free lunch based on existing sources of data (such as SNAP or TANF) in order for the school to qualify for CEP.  If some schools in a district are eligible and others are not, the district may opt for partial implementation, meaning only some schools participate.  Ventura Unified School District in California opted for this arrangement and report that it is simpler – reducing administrative burden – and it increased participation in school breakfast.  Maryland’s Washington County Public Schools also partially implemented CEP in 12 of their 47 schools.  They, too, report an increase in school meal participation.

School districts also have the option to group any number of schools in the district together to achieve eligibility through a combined average of 40 percent. This may extend eligibility to additional schools that could benefit from CEP.  It may also increase the financial viability of electing CEP and maximize federal reimbursement.  From school year 2013 to 2015, 54 of Atlanta Public Schools’ 81 schools implemented CEP, resulting in a nearly $10 million increase in federal reimbursements. This school year, the district is expanding participation to another nine schools by leveraging grouping among six schools and three charter schools.  They expect it will further maximize the benefits of CEP in their district.

In addition to partial implementation options, school districts also have flexibility in enrollment.  Though the official deadline for electing CEP for school year 2015-16 was August 31, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) will allow schools and LEAs to continue to elect CEP at any point throughout the school year.  FNS also encourages state agencies to continue accepting late elections to ensure decision makers have the time they need to assess their options and for those who choose to participate to take advantage of the provision’s many benefits. 

This is the third and final post in a series about implementing CEP.  In the first post, we explored the financial viability of participating in CEP.  In the second, we discussed overcoming the potential legislative road bumps schools may face implementing CEP.  In this post, we looked at the enrollment and implementation flexibilities available to districts interested in CEP.  Together, we hope these posts provide a clear picture of what CEP is and how it can benefit schools, food service programs, students, parents, and the community. For additional information on CEP and many helpful resources, please visit our website.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition