The Community Eligibility Provision: A Fresh Solution to Hunger in Poverty-Stricken Schools

by Jacob Woodward

The Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, was established in 2010 under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.[1]  CEP is a new program designed to reduce the number of hungry students in high-poverty schools. Starting in the 2011-2012 school year, the CEP began to be phased into certain schools.[2]  2014-2015 was the first school year of national availability for the initiative and garnered the participation of over 14,000 high-poverty schools.[3]  That represents about half of the schools that are eligible to participate in the CEP, and one out of ten schools in the nation.[4]  Over 2,200 school districts – one in seven – have adopted the provision, resulting in more than six million children having access to two healthy meals a day.[5]

Virginia is one of several states that began its first year of participation in CEP in the 2014-2015 school year.  CEP allows eligible schools to provide both breakfast and lunch to all students without charging them.[6]  Schools can be reimbursed for up to one hundred percent of the cost of the meals, depending on the percentage of low-income students attending the school.[7]  In order to be eligible, schools must be classified as high poverty, with forty percent or more identified students.[8]  “Identified students” include children who are eligible for free meals because they are in foster care, in Head Start, are homeless, are migrant, or live in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) households.[9]  Eligibility can be determined on a district-wide basis, by groups of schools within local education agencies, or for schools individually.[10]  In 2014, CEP served eleven school districts, eighty-six schools, and nearly 42,000 students in Virginia alone.[11]

The CEP offers families several benefits. As mentioned before, it provides children attending eligible schools with two free, highly-nutritious meals every school day. The measure therefore eases the financial burden on families by lowering their daily food costs. Finally, because school meal applications are unnecessary under the CEP, the program eliminates language, literacy, and other barriers associated with filling out applications,[12] and reduces administrative costs because schools no longer have to collect, certify, or verify those applications.[13]

Children who are well-nourished are healthier and more successful in school.[14]  That fact, coupled with lower administrative costs, makes the CEP a highly desirable outcome for schools with high percentages of children living in poverty, especially if those children do not have access to regular meals. So why don’t more schools participate? Many schools that are eligible for the CEP did not participate during the first year of nationwide availability.[15]  Since CEP has only recently developed nation-wide scale, data is limited with respect to understanding why schools have chosen not to participate in the program. It may be that some school districts still have not heard of the CEP. However, this seems unlikely, since the provision was passed over five years ago and many advocacy groups such as the Department of Education, Food Research and Action Center, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have written multiple letters and widely disseminated fact sheets to schools in that time.[16]

The more likely possibility is that schools who are near the lower edge of eligibility are unconvinced that the CEP could financially benefit them, since schools are reimbursed for a higher percentage of the value of meals if they have a higher proportion of “identified students.”[17]  For a school that just makes the mark, it may be (or seem to be) less expensive to go through the Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program. However, we can expect to see increased participation in the CEP as time goes on. Schools that implemented the CEP in the 2011-2012 school year in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan saw breakfast participation increase by twenty-five percent and lunch participation increase by thirteen percent.[18]  Those numbers represent thousands of children who now have access to nutritious meals that they didn’t have before. The Community Eligibility Provision represents a chance for children to have a real opportunity to succeed in school.

[1] School Meals: Community Eligibility Provision, U.S. Dep’t of Agric. Food & Nutrition Serv. (Sept. 30, 2015), http://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/community-eligibility-provision.

[2] FRAC Facts: Community Eligibility Provision: An Amazing New Opportunity, Food Research & Action Ctr., http://frac.org/pdf/community_eligibility_amazing_new_option_schools.pdf (last visited Nov. 12, 2015).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] 86 and Counting, Virginia Poverty Law Ctr. (May 11, 2015), http://www.vplc.org/86-and-counting.

[7] Key Policy Letters Signed by the Education Secretary or Deputy Secretary, U.S. Dep’t of Educ. (Aug. 5, 2015), http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/secletter/150805.html.

[8] The Community Eligibility Provision, Virginia Hunger Solutions, http://vahungersolutions.org/cep (last visited Nov. 12, 2015).

[9] Id.

[10] U.S. Dep’t of Educ., supra note 7.

[11] Virginia Poverty Law Ctr., supra note 6.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Creating Hunger-Free Schools Through the Community Eligibility Provision, Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments (Mar. 2015), http://csba.org/GovernanceAndPolicyResources/~/media/CSBA/Files/GovernanceResources/GovernanceBriefs/201503_HungerFreeSchoolsCEPFactSheet.ashx.

[15] Virginia Poverty Law Ctr., supra note 6.

[16] See, e.g. Food Research and Action Center, National School Lunch Program: Trends and Factors Affecting Student Participation, January 2015 http://frac.org/pdf/national_school_lunch_report_2015.pdf.

[17] U.S. Dep’t of Educ., supra note 7.

[18] Food Research & Action Ctr., supra note 16.