Policy 101: Everything You Need To Know About the Community Eligibility Provision (and How It Helps Kids)

The “Community Eligibility Provision” (CEP) is back in the spotlight again, with Congress turning new focus on the provision and how it works. These changes would have a devastating effect on schools and low-income students. Here’s what you need to know.

1) What is the “Community Eligibility Provision” or CEP?

The Community Eligibility Provision is a policy focused on cutting back on paperwork and eliminating the stigma surrounding free and reduced-priced meals in high-need schools. Under CEP, schools can use household data that has already been collected and verified in other government programs, instead of processing a new round of paperwork to see how many students qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. This reduces administrative costs and improves food service in schools.

2) How does it work?

The Community Eligibility Provision lets schools use existing income and household data to determine need instead of requiring them to process new paperwork that, in essence, would show the same thing.

Here’s how it works: Under the standard system, schools require parents to fill out paper applications showing their income. It’s an extremely time-consuming, staff-intensive process: These applications are then processed by staff to determine if a child gets a free meal, a reduced-price meal, or pays the full price for the meal. Staff then individually verify the information submitted on a sample of these applications and set up a system to track each child’s participation so that the appropriate category (free, reduced or paid) for that child can be submitted for federal reimbursement.

CEP cuts through that red tape. Instead of processing new applications, schools can simply use data from other federal low-income programs, like the stringent application processes for SNAP (formerly food stamps) and TANF which provides time-limited cash assistance and services to families living in poverty. High-need schools then can use this “automatically verified” data to lock in the percentage of meals that can be claimed by the school at the free rate of reimbursement (eliminating the reduced-price meal category altogether). And instead of counting and claiming meals for each individual child, the total meals served are counted and then claimed based on the free or paid rate for which the school is eligible. Meals are offered to all students at no cost and the school pays any difference between the federal reimbursement of free meals and the total cost for meal service.

3) Why are policy changes to CEP a bad idea?

Proposals to change the Community Eligibility Provision threshold will reduce the number of high-need schools that qualify and will disproportionately affect low-income students.

A brief explanation of the numbers: Under the current threshold, schools can qualify for CEP if 40 percent of its students live in families that have already been directly certified as low-income by qualifying for TANF or SNAP. Many low-income kids, however, do not participate in SNAP or TANF. Research shows that when 40 percent of students in a school are directly certified, it means 64 percent of the total student body are low-income. Some in Congress want to raise the direct-certification threshold to 60 percent; under that scenario, CEP would only be available in schools where 96 percent of the student body is low-income.

This effectively bars thousands of high-poverty schools from qualifying, and makes it harder for kids in need to get school breakfast.

4) Why do schools like the Community Eligibility Provision?

Community eligibility is good for schools. School food service can spend time on food preparation and delivery instead of paperwork associated with applications, delinquent accounts, and attaching each meal to a specific child for accounting purposes. Schools can offer breakfast using proven service models like breakfast in the classroom and accrue all the benefits from a better nourished student body. Numerous studies show that eating school breakfast is linked to improved test scores, reduced behavior problems, better attendance, and higher graduation rates. Students need a healthy breakfast on learning days as much as they need them on standardized test days.

5) Why is Community Eligibility good for kids?

CEP is good for kids from low-income families because it helps ensure they get breakfast. The impact is huge: studies have shown students who eat school breakfast do better on tests and have fewer health problems.

School breakfast participation among low-income kids can be low. Barriers like transportation and bus schedules make it hard for kids to get to the cafeteria before school starts. Today, only about half of the kids who get a free or reduced-price lunch are successfully getting a school breakfast.

With CEP, schools can alter their meal service to more efficiently reach kids. For example, when all the kids eat free, high-need schools can more easily move to alternative breakfast service models like serving breakfast in the classroom or students grabbing a breakfast in the hallway when entering school. With these models, around 70 percent of kids who eat a free lunch are able to eat breakfast. This helps guarantee that they get the proper nutrition they need to learn and thrive.

Bottom Line: The Community Eligibility Provision is a common sense policy that allows schools to cut through red-tape and focus staff time and resources on food service instead of food service paperwork. Congress should not make it harder for high-need schools to participate.