Community Eligibility Removes Red Tape, Feeds Millions of Children

Since 1946, low-income children have been eligible to receive free and reduced-priced meals at school. Because children learn better when they’re not hungry, this strategy has strongly supported educational success. However, many low-income children fail to receive the meals for which they are eligible because they do not return the required paperwork. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), enacted by Congress as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, is designed to address this issue. CEP makes free meals available to all students in certain high-poverty schools, as measured by aggregate participation in other means-tested programs. This ensures low-income kids don’t miss out for failing to turn in a school meal application.

Since the provision was first implemented during the 2014-2015 school year, CEP has increased breakfast participation by 9.4 percent and lunch participation by 5.2 percent. Without Community Eligibility, students in families who move, experience changes in household income, or have mixed immigration status often fail to receive school meals.  Moreover, Community Eligibility reduces the stigma that students may feel about receiving nutrition assistance.  

Schools can participate in Community Eligibility if at least 40 percent of students automatically qualify for free school meals based on participation in other need-based programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Students who are foster children, migrants, participate in the Head Start or Even Start programs, or considered homeless or runaways are automatically eligible, as well.

CEP can be implemented on an individual school basis, as a group of schools within a district, or as a whole district. Community Eligibility removes the administrative burden from schools of collecting household applications to determine eligibility for school meal programs. The program also saves parents time by eliminating the additional paperwork. Currently, over 18,000 high-poverty schools have implemented CEP and 8.5 million children have received healthy school meals at no charge under this provision.  

Last month, the U.S. Drug Administration released the final CEP administrative rule, which made some clarifications and changes to address feedback from school districts, state child nutrition agencies, advocates, and the community. The final rule further enhances efficiency in the administrative process and makes it even easier to participate in CEP. These developments will ensure this effective program reaches all eligible schools and communities—adding to the millions of low-income students already served.

Despite the release of the final rule, House legislation (H.R. 5003) has been introduced, which would severely limit the reach and quality of school meals, stripping away Community Eligibility as well as research-based nutrition standards for student meals, snacks, and beverages. In addition, House lawmakers have released their plan to block-grant SNAP and begin to block grant school nutrition programs. We urge Congress not to pass legislation that would prohibit millions of students from benefiting from this crucial element of the school meal programs.