The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it is giving an estimated 3,000 more school districts in high-need areas the option to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost, by expanding the availability of the Community Eligibility Provision, commonly known as CEP.

CEP is a simplified meal service option that allows schools to provide meals at no cost to all students without requiring families to apply for free and reduced-price meals. Instead, school districts receive federal funding based on a formula using existing data from SNAP and other programs, and local or state funds must fill any gap between program costs and federal support. Before this final rule, at least 40% of students had to live in households participating in certain income-based federal assistance programs, in order for a school, group of schools, or school district to be eligible for CEP. This final rule lowers that threshold from 40% to 25%.

While this change in CEP applies across the country, it will be particularly impactful in states and school districts that commit to supporting healthy school meals for all students with their own funds.

CEP – and all models for providing healthy school meals for all at no cost – is a win-win for schools, kids, families and communities and provides many benefits, including:

  • Lowering food costs for families.
  • Increasing food and nutrition security, especially for students from households that barely miss the cutoff to be eligible for free and reduced-price school meals.
  • Eliminating school meal debt.
  • Reducing social stigma for students who eat free or reduced-price meals, while other students pay full price.
  • Increasing student participation in school breakfast and lunch programs, which increases revenues and helps schools offer healthier meals.
  • Saving time by simplifying program operations for hardworking school nutrition staff.

“Healthy school meals are an essential part of the school environment — just like teachers, classrooms and books – and set kids up for success and better health,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “More children are fueled for learning and development when they can count on tasty, nutritious meals at school. While there is still more work ahead to ensure every K-12 student in the nation can access healthy school meals at no cost, this is a significant step on the pathway towards that goal.”

USDA is also supporting expanded access to healthy school meals by offering extensive financial support for schools, including providing:

USDA also continues to expand its direct certification for Medicaid demonstration projects, which ensure that eligible children in households receiving Medicaid benefits automatically receive free or reduced price school meals without their families filling out an application. The demonstration projects have been implemented in 38 states, and USDA continues to invite more states to participate. In school year 2019-2020, 1.4 million students received free and reduced-price school meals thanks to direct certification through Medicaid.

Learn more in the full news release.