The number of high-poverty schools offering universal free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is increasing, according to a new report released by the Food Research and Action Center.
During the 2022-2023 school year, a record 40,235 schools adopted CEP, compared to the 33,300 schools that adopted the provision during 2021-2022. This represents an increase of 20.8%.
Established through the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, CEP allows participating schools and districts with a high level of low-income students to serve meals to all students for free, regardless of their family income. Participating schools and districts also do not need to collect free or reduced-price meal applications. Individual schools, a group of schools or an entire district can participate in CEP.
All in all, 39 states saw their CEP participation increase during the 2022-2023 school year, according to the report. California saw the largest increase of any state, with 2,420 new schools adopting the program. The study’s authors note this is likely due to the passage of universal free meals legislation, which requires schools in the state that are eligible for CEP to participate.
On the flip side, Missouri saw the largest decrease in CEP participation, with 17 schools dropping out of the program.
Nationwide, 89% of eligible schools participated in CEP during the 2022-2023 school year and 19.9 million students attended a school that offered universal free meals through the program.
Currently, there are numerous efforts underway to expand CEP access. A federal bill introduced last month aims to reduce the percentage of low-income students needed for schools to participate in the program and a new proposed rule released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would do the same.
In addition, President Biden earmarked over $15 billion in his 2024 budget to expand CEP to more schools.