Late this summer, just as parents started to wonder precisely where they’d put that school supplies list, Tulsa Public Schools announced that all elementary schools in the district would serve free breakfast and lunch to all students in the coming school year. Tulsa is able to provide these meals using federal funding through the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP.
This is great news for Tulsa Public Schools and kids. Community Eligibility Provision drives down administrative burdens, better equips kids to learn, and ends the stigma sometimes attached to free school meals. Participation has so far been very low in Oklahoma, but bringing in TPS’s 24,000 elementary students will increase the number of students participating in Oklahoma in the 2016-2017 school year by more than one-third, from 66,000 to 90,000.
CEP is designed specifically for schools and districts with a high percentage of low-income students, and TPS certainly fits the bill. In the 2015-2016 school year, at least 84 percent of TPS elementary students were low-income, meaning they qualified for free- or reduced-price meals. In more than two-thirds of TPS elmentary schools, more than 95 percent of students qualified. Two in three students were automatically signed up for school meals because their families were receiving SNAP or TANF benefits or met some other criterion. In short, very few students were paying full-price for their meals, and for the majority of students receiving free meals, eligibility paperwork was superfluous because they automatically qualified without it.
Switching to CEP will benefit TPS students, families, and school staff. By guaranteeing every student a healthy breakfast and lunch very day, CEP equips students to be better-focused, better-behaved, and ready to learn. Universal meals – particularly universal breakfast – end the stigma of eating a free school meal and take strain off the budgets of families who might not quite qualify for free or reduced-cost meals but still struggle to put food on the table. Finally, serving breakfast and lunch to every student at no cost to them frees up school administrators and resources that would have otherwise been devoted to processing eligibility paperwork and hounding students over milk money – which means that even the handful of better-off elementary schools in TPS will benefit.
In signing on to CEP, Tulsa Public Schools joins dozens of other Oklahoma school districts, including Oklahoma City Public Schools, Ardmore Public Schools, Anadarko Public Schools, and more in providing free meals to all students in some or all schools, regardless of ability to pay. More still will begin participating for the first time during the 2016-2017 school year.
Momentum is growing for this program in Oklahoma. In another very tough budget year, that’s a much needed win for students and schools.