September 22, 2023
Katie Herndon Dawkins, North Carolina Alliance for Health Communications Manager
For what it’s worth (FWIW), we believe that school meals are one of the most essential parts of the school day and that every child in every public school in the state should be able to eat school meals at no cost. But (disclaimer), the school meals program is extremely complicated. In our FWIW blog series, we will attempt to break down the intricacies and confusion around school meals and hopefully shed light on the “worth” of school meals. We’ve looked at how school meals are funded, how school meals are reimbursed, and the household meal application. In this post, we’ll take a look at the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
In North Carolina and across the country, some schools participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP is a meal service option that allows eligible schools, school districts, or groups of schools to provide breakfast and lunch at no cost to all students in the school. The goal of CEP is to ensure access to nutritious school meals in low-wealth communities.
Schools, school districts, or groups of schools that want to participate in CEP have to be eligible. Eligibility is determined by an Identified Student Percentage (ISP) of 40% or higher, which equates to 65-70% of students being eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Schools use what’s known as direct certification to determine their ISP. Direct certification is achieved by data-matching households that receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and children who are certified for free meals without the family meal application because they are homeless, migrant, enrolled in Head Start, or in foster care. Because school districts and schools participating in CEP use direct certification to determine their identified student percentage (ISP), they no longer have to collect meal applications each year from students and families to provide meals at no cost to all students.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of schools in North Carolina that are eligible to participate in CEP. Some schools choose not to participate in CEP because the numbers don’t work out. It sounds crazy, but remember back to our posts on how school meals are funded and how they are reimbursed? It was complicated, right? Same thing with CEP. The meals actually served get reimbursed at either the reduced or free meal price based on the identified student percentage (ISP). Some schools aren’t able to stay in the black because the reimbursements they receive don’t cover the cost of operating the school nutrition program. Those schools typically choose not to participate in CEP even if they are eligible. Another reason a school or district might not participate is that they don’t fully understand CEP or they assume the numbers won’t work for them.
The final numbers for how many schools in NC are participating in CEP this school year aren’t in yet. The CEP application process was one federal waiver that did get extended to allow schools and districts more time to apply. We did some of our own quick research and found that there is definitely an increase in schools participating in CEP this school year and that makes us very excited. It means more students in the state have access to school meals at no cost.
Additionally, the proposed federal Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act could make CEP an option for more schools and ensure that more students across North Carolina have access to school meals at no cost. This proposed legislation would increase the amount of meal reimbursements, lower the identified student percentage to be eligible for CEP, and create a state-wide option for CEP. If this legislation were to pass, it would be a game changer for CEP and school nutrition programs across the country.
School meals matter and participation in CEP has been shown to have a positive impact on students. For what it’s worth, we believe that school meals for all are crucial to student success in North Carolina.