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USDA Expands Access to the Community Eligibility Provision

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a game-changer for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. This innovative program allows eligible schools to provide meals at no cost to all enrolled students, without the hassle of collecting household meal applications each year. To qualify for CEP, schools must meet a minimum Identified Student Percentage (ISP) in the prior school year before implementing the program. The ISP represents the number of enrolled students receiving some type of federal assistance. Currently set at 40%, this threshold ensures that schools with a significant number of students in need can participate in the program.


Yesterday, the USDA announced that effective October 26, 2023, the minimum ISP will be lowered to 25%, making it easier for more schools across the country to participate in CEP. This change aims to benefit children, families, and communities by increasing access to free meals and reducing food insecurity in high-need areas. In addition to the minimum ISP, under the National School Lunch Act, a multiplier of 1.6 is applied to the ISP to calculate the percentage of meals reimbursed at the federal FREE rate, with any remaining meals reimbursed at the PAID rate. The multiplier of 1.6 has not been updated with the new regulation and remains the same as previous years.


While the reduction in the minimum ISP has many advantages, it is also important to consider the potential drawbacks to the new regulation when deciding whether CEP is right for your school. One major concern is that CEP effectively removes the reimbursement for REDUCED-PRICE meals, placing the responsibility on schools to bridge the financial gap between meals reimbursed at the FREE rate and meals reimbursed at the PAID rate. The loss in REDUCED-PRICE reimbursement can be challenging for schools with limited financial resources that can potentially strain their budgets. Another drawback is that schools opting into CEP will need to offer all meals at no cost to students. Schools who previously charged students for meals will no longer receive that income and will need to rely on reimbursement funds and the school’s operating budget to run the program. For schools located in the six states where Universal Meals have been implemented, the State will help bridge the gap between FREE meals reimbursement and PAID meals reimbursement with additional funds.


We at School Food and Wellness Group understand that navigating the evolving landscape of CEP can be daunting, and our team of knowledgeable consultants is available to offer guidance and support to ensure that schools can maximize the benefits while effectively managing their financial resources. We commend USDA for lowering the ISP threshold as we believe that CEP can be a win-win for schools and families. However, careful consideration is necessary to ensure that the program's expansion aligns with the financial realities of School Food Authorities while continuing to promote better health and academic outcomes for all.


For more information on how to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision, reach out to our team at hello@sfwgroup.org to schedule an introductory call!



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