By Caitlin Shea, Research and KIDS COUNT Intern
More kids are eating for free and without stigma thanks to a federal school meal option called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), introduced in 143 Texas school districts and nearly 1500 campuses last year. Under CEP, when 40 percent or more of the student body is eligible for free school meals via other poverty programs, the entire school becomes eligible for free breakfasts and lunches. CEP can be implemented for a single school, a group of schools, or districtwide as long as the total qualifying rate for the group is 40 percent or higher. Approximately 800 more campuses would be a good fit for CEP, and districts have until August 31 to sign up.
Program Reduces Free Meal Stigma
One year after implementation, many school districts are reporting increased breakfast and lunch participation at eligible schools and families are spending less on school meals. And because the entire student body is eligible for free meals, the program also effectively removes the stigma associated with free and reduced-price meals – resulting in fewer hungry kids. Before CEP, kids carrying a negative meal account balance were sometimes given substitute, “unpaid” meals (a cheese sandwich, for example) in lieu of the hot meals served to other students. This sort of policy visibly differentiates students by family income, which can pressure kids to skip meals to avoid stress and stigma. Since all kids eat for free under CEP, participating schools no longer need to issue negative balance letters or serve “unpaid” meals. CEP schools are also no longer required to collect income forms to determine eligibility – another common point of stigmatization for low-income kids.
Nutrition Departments See Financial Benefits
School nutrition departments have reported noticeable financial benefits. Higher meal participation increases departmental revenue (through additional reimbursement), and greater economies of scale can decrease per-meal costs. Many districts have chosen to reinvest those savings in food quality. Furthermore, eliminating cumbersome application requirements and negative account balances reduces overhead costs and debt loads respectively for nutrition departments. CEP’s great successes aren’t limited to improved food quality—schools have also upgraded equipment and increased kitchen staff positions.
August 31st Opt-in Deadline for 2015-16
Despite an inevitable learning curve in CEP’s first year, the benefits to schools and districts are clear, and non-participating, eligible school districts still have time to sign up for the 2015-16 school year. In districts across the state – from Alief to Corpus Christi, Amarillo, Waco and Ysleta – thousands of students could benefit from CEP. With healthy, well-balanced meals available to all kids, CEP helps schools make sure no student goes hungry during the school day, and helps ensure that students are ready to learn.
Districts can check eligibility using this tool from the Texas Department of Agriculture, which administers CEP. The deadline to opt in for the 2015-16 school year is August 31st.