Phil Ford, Advocacy and Policy Consultant

Phil Ford

Policy & Advocacy Consultant
Ford & Ford Group

Everything you need to know about the Community Eligibility Program

Oct 3, 2022

CEP Free/Reduced School lunch

School meals are an essential part of every student’s day. Research by Tufts University shows that for many kids, the meals they eat at school are the most nutritionally balanced meals they get all day. Why is this so important now that COVID-19 lockdowns are over and people are back to their somewhat normal routines?

  • Because the pressure of paying for school meals, after a two-year hiatus, is back and creating a greater challenge for many parents to find room in their budgets to ante up.
  • According to the SC Department of Education’s 2021-2022 student enrollment report, 61% of students live in poverty. That’s based on all 74 school districts in the state, composed of 1,200 schools that serve over 777,000 students in Pre-K through 12th grade.

A solution for parents is to apply for free or reduced school meals through their school administrators. An even better solution is for school districts or schools to apply for the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program (CEP).

What is CEP?

According to No Kid Hungry, CEP is a unique school meal funding option of the National School Lunch Act that makes it possible for schools to provide free meals to all students. That means no more free or reduced lunch applications, fewer administrative burdens, and fewer social stigmas for students to deal with at school.

How does CEP impact families and students?

  • Improves student attendance and advancement. A study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition found significant benefits for students attending CEP schools, including higher attendance rates and more students advancing beyond 10th grade.
  • Fights hunger. The same study mentioned in the previous bullet also found students attending schools with CEP were nearly 3 times less likely to be food insecure.
  • Promotes equity and reduces stigma. CEP eliminates the out-of-pocket costs for families and reduces the stigma or embarrassment some students may feel by participating in the meals program. CEP also eliminates school lunch shaming, as no student can be turned away or given an alternative meal from failure to pay.
  • Reduces stress for families and students. Families with tight food budgets can rest assured that their child is getting nutritious meals at school, reducing financial strain at home. Students don’t have to worry about paying for meals either.

What are the benefits for schools?

  • Eliminates unpaid school debt. Every student gets free breakfast and lunch. Families don’t pay and administrators don’t have to worry about collecting money and managing accounts.
  • Reduces administrative burdens. Administrators apply for CEP once every four years.
  • Improves school nutrition staff morale. Staff focus more on nutritious meals and less on the nutrition budget.
  • Can generate revenue for school nutrition budgets. Oftentimes, CEP leads to an increase in breakfast and lunch participation, which increases revenue for the nutrition budget.
  • Can make it easier to serve meals in the classroom. Teachers only need to count the number of meals being served to students in their classroom rather than tracking free, reduced, and paid meals.

Who is eligible for CEP?

School districts or individual schools with at least 40% of “Identified Students” are eligible. The Identified Student Percentage are students who are approved for free meals without an application because they are:

  • Enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), or Medicaid,
  • Living in a household where another student is enrolled in one of the previously mentioned programs, or
  • Homeless, migrant, runaway, in foster care, or enrolled in Head Start or Early Head Start.

What if my school district says it doesn’t qualify?

Some school districts may not qualify for CEP because the total enrollment of all the schools in the district does not meet the Identified Student Percentage of at least 40 percent. In this case, individual schools can apply for CEP if they meet the required percentage. Contact your school principal or school nutrition administrator and ask them about CEP.

Why don’t all school districts in a single county qualify for CEP?

In some cases where there are multiple school districts in one county, district-wide eligibility for CEP varies because CEP is based on household income. In Richland County, Richland One participates in CEP, so all students get free breakfast and lunch. In Richland School District Two, the district is not eligible for CEP because its Identified Student Percentage is less than 40 percent. Richland One is composed of more low-income families as opposed to Richland Two. This is an unfortunate fact that negatively impacts struggling families, school equity, and student mental health.

Are there alternatives for school districts, schools, and families that don’t qualify?

No Kid Hungry has compiled information about two alternatives:

  1. Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Act enables any school to provide free meals to students. There are no eligibility requirements under Provision 2 as there are with CEP, and also unlike CEP, you can choose to offer universal breakfast and/or lunch.
  2. Non-pricing is another funding option for universal free school meals where schools have funding support from the local government, school board, or private sources. Meals are served free to all students, and meals are counted and claimed by fee category. The difference between federal reimbursement and program costs would have to come from non-federal funding.

Download the in-depth comparison chart, Providing Universal Free School Meals, from No Kid Hungry.