One year ago in my weekly column, I wrote about the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that helps to fund free breakfast and lunches for all students in eligible schools. The program aims to help students in low-income, high-need areas, so schools are only eligible if 40 percent of their student body qualifies for government assistance like SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
A school interested in this program must meet the established eligibility requirements, serve free breakfasts and lunches to all students, maintain a count of total breakfasts and total lunches served daily, agree not to collect household applications for a school meal program, and determine if non-federal funds are needed to cover costs above the USDA requirement.
The benefits of this program are obvious. It helps low-income students access free and nutritious meals without creating a stigma; it streamlines school cafeterias by eliminating the need for cashiers; it reduces paperwork for parents who would otherwise have to apply for free and reduced cost lunches; and it eliminates the need for a school bureaucracy tasked with tracking things like unpaid meal charges. Finally, and most importantly, it helps to produce healthier and happier kids who do better in school because they are properly nourished.
CEP is a great program, but it only helps the children in schools that participate. Unfortunately, many eligible schools do not. Based on numbers released by the State Department of Education in April 2019, only 44 of the 153 eligible school districts in Oklahoma had enrolled. That means that of the 348,000 Oklahoma students who could be in schools supported by CEP, only about 117,000 are. More than half of those students in CEP-enrolled schools were from Oklahoma City and Tulsa. That means that a great many schools — mostly in rural areas — are leaving money on the table and forgoing the financial aid offered by CEP.
To review which school districts were eligible and participated last year, you can view them at https://sde.ok.gov/child-nutrition-documents and also see which districts were close to qualifying. If you live in a district which might qualify, contact your local school administration or board members to see if this might be a possibility for your area. When it comes to educating our children and properly feeding them, every dollar counts. At OICA, we believe our schools should do everything in their power to participate in programs like this and ensure their students reap the benefits.