Late this summer, we shared information about new mechanism allowing some high-poverty schools to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge for all students. Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, is part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. It was successfully piloted in 11 states before opening nationwide for the 2014-15 school year. Oklahoma’s uptake for the first year was relatively low – just 12 percent of eligible schools participated, versus 42 percent nationwide. However, there’s reason to believe that participation may be trending upward.
Preliminary data suggests that the number of Oklahoma schools participating in the CEP has nearly doubled for the 2015-16 school year. Chickasha Public Schools is part of that second wave. Zelly Durbin, the Child Nutrition Leader at Chickasha Public Schools, first heard about the CEP from the state Department of Education, and then learned more at a food service management conference in Mississippi. Durbin said that Chickasha Public Schools elected the CEP because they wanted as many students as possible to be able to eat without worrying about the cost.
The Community Eligibility Provision is designed to address a number of challenges high-poverty schools face: feeding high numbers of hungry students, coping with administrative burdens, and fighting the stigma that can come with getting breakfast and lunch at school. Here’s how it’s worked in Chickasha:
More students received nutritious meals
Chickasha Public Schools served 7,000 more meals in September 2015 than in the prior year (from 34,437 meals served to 42,154 meals served). This growth is consistent with prior research on the issue. In pilot states, schools saw a 25 percent increase in breakfast participation and a 13 percent increase in lunch participation within two years of electing the CEP.
Stigma of school breakfasts and lunch reduced
Even in high-poverty schools, free- and reduced-price meals can still bring a share of stigma. Participation in school breakfast programs has traditionally trailed lunch participation for that reason: when it’s understood that only low-income students eat school breakfast, participation can become stigmatized. CEP builds in the expectation that all students participate in both breakfast and lunch, thereby removing the stigma of eating breakfast at school.
In high-poverty schools, a student whose family income narrowly exceeds the free/reduced eligibility cutoff may still be unable to pay. In CEP schools, administrators don’t have to hound paying students for money to replenish their accounts or pay off balances, a task that school administrators say is one of the worst parts of their jobs. Durbin reported that, prior to the CEP implementation, Chickasha students whose families’ income narrowly exceeded the cutoff for free or reduced-cost meals often chose not to eat because they knew their families couldn’t afford to spend the money. With the CEP, those students don’t have to worry.
Some administrators report being nervous about electing the CEP out of fear that it will highlight the poverty rate in school districts, further stigmatizing students in those schools. However, Durbin says that the local community is overwhelmingly on board. The district implemented CEP in its elementary and middle schools, but not its high school, and found that their only complaint from parents so far has been to ask why the high school wasn’t included, too. Durbin says they hope to be able to bring the high school into CEP in the next few years.
Administrative burden was reduced
With a few exceptions, non-CEP schools typically determine which students receive free or reduced-priced meals by means of an application that parents fill out at the beginning of every school year. Particularly in high-poverty schools, this can require school administrative staff to process an enormous number of applications.
“I can’t tell you how much work we did with the applications… Everybody was thrilled to not have to deal with applications” – Zelly Durbin, Chickasha Public Schools
Because CEP utilizes the percentage of students automatically determined to be eligible for free school meals (students receiving SNAP benefits, students who are in foster care, etc.), CEP significantly reduces the amount of meal-related paperwork. This allows administrators to focus instead on a range of other important issues. As Durbin put it, “I can’t tell you how much work we did with the applications… Everybody was thrilled to not have to deal with applications.”
With the time no longer spent on applications, school nutrition staff can turn their attentions to other tasks. Durbin particularly spoke about menu planning: new USDA restrictions on fat, sodium, and other dietary requirements mean that school menu planning is more complicated than it used to be. Her staff is also using the additional time to plan fruit and salad bars at schools, which will in turn give students more options for healthy food.
The bottom line
The successes reported by Chickasha Public Schools aren’t aberrations: Ardmore Public Schools, Shawnee Public Schools, and Oklahoma City Public Schools have variously reported that the CEP was the right move for them. Local educators have been spreading the word about CEP expansion in Oklahoma. One administrator who had implemented the CEP in Shawnee Public Schools was involved in implementation in Oklahoma City Public Schools, and Chickasha Public Schools’ superintendent came from Locust Grove Public Schools, which had elected the CEP under his tenure.
It is clear that the Community Eligibility Provision is a great opportunity for schools and school districts to help make sure students are receiving regular, nutritious meals, alleviate the stigma of poverty, and relieve administrative burden. Although the deadline for schools to elect the CEP for the current school year was August 31, districts may still be able to sign on this school year by contacting the state Department of Education.