This program helps hungry kids and saves administrative costs, but participation lags in Oklahoma

school lunch 2Oklahoma is among the worst in the nation for uptake of a program that ensures low-income students have access to school meals, according to a new report. By not adopting this program, schools are passing up an effective way to reduce administrative costs while ensuring that more Oklahoma kids have reliable access to nutritious meals.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows high-poverty schools, groups of schools, or school districts to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge. In the 2015-2016 school year, only 15 percent of eligible districts participated in Oklahoma, versus 37 percent nationwide, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Among individual schools that were eligible, 21 percent participated in Oklahoma, less than half the national average of 51 percent.

What is the Community Eligibility Provision?

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), part of 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, was designed to boost school meal access in high-poverty schools by eliminating family income eligibility paperwork. CEP eligibility is based on a system that districts already use to identify economically vulnerable students and automatically certify them for free school meals. Schools where more than 40 percent of students meet this criteria are eligible for CEP, and USDA reimbursements for meals in CEP-electing schools are based on that percentage. In schools where two-thirds of students or more automatically receive free meals, electing CEP means that all meals served by the school are reimbursed at the highest federal rate. Districts can choose to implement CEP in a single school, a group of schools, or district-wide, depending on what local administrators and communities determine is best for their students.

Why is CEP good for schools?

CEP’s benefits are well-documented and particularly relevant to Oklahoma. Oklahoma is a food-insecure state, with 1 in 6 Oklahomans unsure that they’ll have enough food available. Two in three Oklahoma school children have family incomes that qualify them for a free- or reduced-cost meal. CEP guarantees no hungry students get lost in the eligibility paperwork shuffle. Furthermore, schools who choose CEP report a range of benefits, from fewer behavior problems to better test scores and higher attendance.

In addition to the proven benefits to students and in classrooms, the Community Eligibility Provision can also provide some much-needed financial stability to schools. Because CEP operates in four-year cycles, CEP schools are guaranteed that meal reimbursements will be locked in for at least four years. For some districts, this means more child nutrition funding than they currently receive; for districts currently relying on income eligibility paperwork to determine USDA reimbursements, this means better use of staff hours and no more hounding students for lunch money.

Why has uptake been low in Oklahoma?

Because CEP eliminates free- and reduced-price meal eligibility paperwork, it affects important school funding mechanisms, including state aid and Title 1. that For the last two school years, uncertainty about how electing CEP would impact district finances has made administrators understandably skittish around the program.  Fortunately, the Oklahoma Department of Education has confirmed that a permanent solution aligned with federal guidance is in effect going forward. Eligible schools and districts should take note of this solution and sign on.

The bottom line

The Community Eligibility Provision provides needed nutrition for Oklahoma students, streamlines administration, and provides a stable source of school funding. Making the switch to the Community Eligibility Provision can involve some legwork and planning for eligible districts and schools, but the benefits pay off in the long run. An updated list of eligible schools and districts should be available here by May 1.

Learn More // Do More


Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.