The USDA is seeking comments on a proposed rule to increase the number of high-poverty schools that can offer free school meals for all students.
The proposal would expand the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) by lowering the minimum identified student percentage participation threshold from 40% to 25%.
That means more schools and districts can opt into the CEP, which can:
- Increase school meal participation.
- Reduce stigma.
- maximize federal reimbursements.
- eliminate unpaid meal charges.
- reduce paperwork for school staff and families.
“Many schools and even some entire states have successfully provided free meals to all their students,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We applaud their leadership in nourishing children and hope this proposed change will make it possible for more schools and states to follow suit.”
We at Salud America! have created the following model comment you can use to support the expansion of universal free school meals.
Comment before May 8, 2023!
Submit This Model Comment to Expand Free School Meals for All Students
For the health of Latinos and all children and families, I support USDA’s plans to expand the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which would increase the ability for schools to offer universal free school meals to all students.
Schools and school districts that qualify for the CEP have the option to provide free, healthy, and tasty school meals for all students. This would allow more children who struggle with hunger and nutrition security to achieve access to healthy school meals, while also removing feelings of stigma or shame among students who eat free school lunch or breakfast.
Many families struggle with hunger and healthy food access. Latino families often live in neighborhoods where there is both a lack of grocery stores and an abundance of unhealthy food options (salud.to/nutritionsec). Many children are not eating fruits and vegetables daily, but are regularly drinking sugary beverages, according to the CDC (salud.to/fruitveg). As a result, Latino children also have higher rates of obesity (20.7%) than their white peers (11.7%) (salud.to/eliminate).
School meals are part of the solution to nutrition security for families in need.
The nutritional quality of school lunches increased by 41% and breakfast by 44% in recent years, studies show (https://salud.to/meals). Participation in school breakfast and lunch increased dramatically when school meals were offered to all students at no charge, allowing millions more students to experience the education and health benefits linked to school meal participation. Universal free school meals also reduce the administrative burdens for both schools and families by eliminating household income applications.
I applaud the proposed CEP expansion and its potential to pave the way for universal free school meals in more schools and districts across the county, closing a gap in healthy food access for many children and families, especially those in need.
What Is the Community Eligibility Provision for Universal Free School Meals?
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a “non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas,” according to the USDA.
The CEP allows the nation’s highest-poverty schools and districts to serve free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.
“CEP is a reimbursement alternative for eligible local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools participating in both the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP),” according to the Federal Register.
Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
As of the 2021-2022 school year, 74.3% of eligible schools adopted community eligibility with 33,300 schools in 5,543 school districts participating, according to the Food Action & Research Center.
How Would Expanding the Community Eligibility Provision Increase Free School Meals?
Expanding the CEP advances a pathway for healthy school meals to more students at no cost.
“Lowering the eligibility threshold would allow more states and local educational agencies to optimize use of the Community Eligibility Provision, helping them to support school meals in a more streamlined manner,” according to the USDA.
The expansion would lessen the stress on administrators, students, families, and school nutrition staff by ensuring nutritious school meals at no-cost to all students, said Luis Guardia, leader of the Food Research & Action Center, in a statement.
“Community eligibility is a pathway to Healthy School Meals for All — and is a win for everyone — administrators, students, families, and school nutrition staff,” Guardia said.
Who Would Benefit from an Expanded Community Eligibility Provision for Free School Meals?
Many children experience both food and nutrition security. This is more so the case for many low-income and racial/ethnic minority communities, including Latinos, who have inequitable access to and affordability of nutritious foods.
Free school meals can help.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, USDA increased the ability of schools to offer school meals free to all public-school students. “Universal free school meals” meant families no longer had to meet income requirements to get free meals under the National School Lunch Program.
Still, some states are enacting universal free school meals. California, Colorado, and Maine have made universal free school meals a permanent policy.
Expanding the CEP is another step toward universal free school meals.
“CEP allows high-poverty schools and districts to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students and reduces administrative paperwork and costs for schools; increases school meal participation; eliminates stigma; maximizes federal reimbursements; and makes it easier to implement Breakfast in the Classroom and other innovative breakfast models,” said Guardia in a statement. “Prior to the pandemic, about one in one in three schools were offering free meals to all students through CEP.”
What Are the Next Steps for the Community Eligibility Provision for Free School Meals?
USDA is encouraging the public to comment on its proposed CEP expansion.
Public input is critical because it gives federal officials information about the potential impact of a proposed regulation, according to Unidos US. Participating in the rulemaking process allows you or your organization to shape federal programs and the rules that govern.
The comment period will end on May 8, 2023.
After this 90-day comment period, the USDA will review the comments and determine how to move forward.
“Continuing to make school meals healthier and available to more students are some of the best ways we can help our children thrive early in life,” Secretary Vilsack said.
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