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How K-12 operators are making universal free lunch work

Four years after the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) launched for public K-12 schools, school districts around the country are figuring out how to make it work for their districts. The popular CEP program allows schools with a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch to offer meals to all students enrolled there at no charge.

Now some districts, after testing CEP in pilot schools, are expanding the number of schools where the program is offered. Others are pulling back, either because the percentage of eligible families at those schools decreased or because their state education funding was affected.

Foodservice directors across the country tend to agree that implementing CEP was easy. Omaha Public Schools piloted the program in six schools four years ago. “We don’t have the backup in the (lunch) lines. Pretty much everybody is the same,” Nutrition Services Director Tammy Yarmon says. “There isn’t the collection of money. Pretty much everybody eats. From an operational standpoint, it’s easy.”

Even though 75% of the Omaha district’s 52,000 students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch—meaning that more schools could qualify for CEP—the district is not increasing the number participating. That’s because Nebraska, Yarmon says, is one of a few states where the precise number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch is used in state funding for schools. “The reason we went into the pilot program originally was to see what the impact is, because it was new to the state,” she says. “When free and reduced plays into state education funding, the districts have to be very cautious.”

Spokane Public Schools in Washington entered tentatively, too. The 31,000-student district began offering CEP in three schools in 2014. In the first year, two of the three schools stopped sending home surveys for families to demonstrate financial need, and Spokane lost nearly $30,000 in state funding, Director of Nutrition Services Doug Wordell says.

Principals at the affected schools appreciated CEP, so they doggedly encouraged families to return the surveys even though their children were already receiving free lunch. Principals at two more elementary schools were willing to commit to the program, so Spokane will expand to five schools this fall.

Scaling back

Other districts are cutting back CEP in response to changing demographics. In one of the most dramatic moves, Metro Nashville Public Schools is going back to a blended, school-by-school model for the 2018-19 school year after implementing CEP districtwide four years ago. Nashville has seen the number of federally eligible students drop from 60% to below 50% across the district, says Executive Director of Nutrition Services Spencer Taylor. If the district had continued to cover the cost of lunches in schools that no longer qualified for the program, he estimates it would have cost $8 million. Officials are still calculating the number of students and schools that will be affected.

To mitigate the impact and minimize the number of hungry kids, both Portland and Nashville are making sure free breakfast is available to all or as many students as possible. And they’re poised to make further free-lunch adjustments in years to come. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s over for a district like mine—it’ll probably change again,” Nashville’s Taylor says. “Come next April, we’ll analyze the data again, and if things change for our community, we could see changes that could increase the number of students that we offer CEP to. I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to where we were originally, but we’ll examine it.”

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

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