Indiana – In a recent national analysis, it was found that a significant number of schools eligible for a federal meal service program in Indiana are not utilizing it. The report outlines that across the nation, 67.5% of the eligible 6,419 school districts have adopted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in at least one school during the 2022-2023 school year, as reported by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).
However, in the state of Indiana, the uptake is considerably less. Only 40.6% of eligible school districts, and 51.7% of the eligible schools in the state, implemented CEP in the recent academic year. Even though Indiana witnessed an increase in the number of schools embracing community eligibility, ranking it among 39 other states, it still falls at the 47th position in terms of nationwide CEP participation.
CEP, a program designed for schools with high poverty rates, allows free breakfast and lunch for all students, irrespective of their financial circumstances. The program is highly praised by child health advocates and educational experts as it not only benefits students, but also eases administrative processes for school authorities by removing school meal applications and unpaid meal charges.
The non-profit organization, No Kid Hungry, which concentrates on improving access to nutritious meals for children and reducing childhood hunger, noted that fulfilling students’ nutritional needs positively impacts their classroom attention, attendance, and behavioral issues.
CEP also provides a guarantee to families with strained food budgets that their child will receive two balanced meals at school, thus alleviating some financial stress at home. Moreover, some schools have recently embraced CEP as a means to continue offering nutritious meals to all students at no cost, following the expiration of pandemic child nutrition waivers last year, as stated by FRAC.
However, the fear of losing Title 1 funding due to the lack of data from school meal applications leads many schools, including some in Indiana, to opt out of the program. For the 2023-24 school year, Indiana schools and districts have until June 30 to submit a CEP application. The number of new applications received so far remains unknown.
FRAC’s latest report reveals a notable increase in the number of schools and districts participating in community eligibility nationwide during the 2022–23 school year. Although there was a rise in participating schools in Indiana, the uptake rate among eligible schools overall witnessed a slight decrease.
In the last school year, out of the 1,148 schools eligible for CEP, 593 participated. This is an increase from the 506 participating schools in the 2021-22 academic year, where 957 schools were qualified. Included among the new participants are Pike Township schools in Indianapolis, which serve nearly 11,000 students.
Of the 469 eligible Indiana schools with more than 60% of students qualifying as high-need under CEP guidelines, 311 took part in the federal program in the 2022-23 school year, marking a 66.3% adoption rate. Among the 356 eligible schools with 50-60% high-need students, about 52% (200 schools) signed up. However, the participation rate dropped to 24.5% for schools with high-need student enrollment at or below 50%; of the 323 schools that were eligible, only 77 utilized the program.
The Indiana Department of Education estimates that a minimum of 1,100 schools will qualify for CEP in the 2023-24 academic year. Furthermore, families are not required to submit an application for community provision like they would for the free and reduced meals program. This ensures free breakfast and lunch for any student at a participating school.
Several schools in the Indianapolis area are planning to continue offering free meals to students through CEP for the 2023-24 school year, including Indianapolis Public Schools and certain schools in the Perry, Warren, and Wayne districts. However, students in other Indianapolis-area schools, such as those in the Decatur, Franklin, Speedway, and Washington districts, will not automatically receive free food.
Some school district officials previously expressed their concerns about not participating in CEP due to the “complexity” of the federal program or the fact that their schools do not qualify for complete meal reimbursement, thus requiring districts to cover the rest of the cost.
In order for a school to qualify for CEP, at least 40% of the school’s enrolled students must already be involved in another means-tested program or belong to a protected group, such as students experiencing homelessness, in foster care, or migrant students. Schools that meet the minimum threshold to qualify for community provision receive a reimbursement for 62.5% of meals served, as per federal guidelines. Schools where nearly two-thirds of students fall into the above categories get fully reimbursed for the meals.
Schools with higher populations of needy students receive near or total reimbursement for meals, making community eligibility a financially viable option and thus more likely to be adopted, according to FRAC. However, many schools with a lower percentage of needy students “fear participating” as the level of federal government reimbursement would not cover the total cost of meals served to students, as indicated by Allyson Pérez, a child nutrition policy analyst with FRAC.