Now Is the Time for CEP

It’s been one heck of a year, but school nutrition directors and staff are some of the most resilient, determined, unflappable bunch there is. As they continue to serve meals in new and innovative ways, federal nutrition waivers have reduced one burden on them for this year: collecting lunch money.

Free school meals for all students have increased access during a difficult time and reduced administrative and logistical burdens while schools are appropriately focused on keeping kids safe.

Thanks to USDA’s extended Federal nutrition waivers, operating on SSO next school year will ensure that student’s nationwide will continue to have access to free meals. These waivers are a step in the right direction towards offering Universal School Meals and guaranteeing that the support children received during the pandemic will continue for years to come.

Though the 2022-2023 school year seems far away, it’s not too soon to begin considering how to continue the free meal benefit to students in your school district. Luckily, we have a tool in our back pockets! Starting the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in your district would wipe out this issue and continue the increased access to school meals for all students. CEP allows all students to eat school meals for free, regardless of income. A school or district’s reimbursement rate is determined by the percentage of students identified as SNAP, TANF, or Medicaid users, foster kids, students experiencing homelessness, or in other qualifying groups (ISP).

There are a TON of CEP benefits, such as no tracking down school meal debt payments, less work for school nutrition staff when students are going through the lunch line, greater school meal participation, and if the numbers stack up, a higher reimbursement!

From our friends at No Kid Hungry, here are a few reasons why your school district should begin considering CEP TODAY:

  • Applying for CEP now is a no-risk opportunity to lock in your current ISPs, and high reimbursement rates, through SY 24-25. Rates in many districts are higher than ever before due to the pandemic and record SNAP enrollments.
  • Even though you’ll be operating SSO this year, you can lock in your current ISPs and ability to serve universal free meals for the following 3 school years (SY22-23 through SY24-25).
  • If your ISPs continue to increase next year, then you can reapply and lock in higher rates next year. However, it’s more likely that your ISPs will go down next year, as the economy rebounds.
  • If you don’t apply for CEP this year, and your ISPs decrease next year, then it will have been a missed opportunity to lock in the current peak reimbursement rates.
  • Another benefit of electing CEP now is that all students in a CEP school are eligible for valuable P-EBT food benefits. If schools continue to be impacted by the pandemic, P-EBT benefits may be extended into the 21-22 School Year, and all of the students in your CEP schools would receive this important benefit.

USDA extended the CEP application deadline to September 30. If you have the capacity to run your numbers and apply by the end of September, we recommend doing so. If your capacity is limited, please reach out – we are happy to help!

If you are interested in learning more about how CEP could benefit your school or district, check out these resources and feel free to reach out to for additional support.

CEP Resources

Overview of the CEP Evaluation and Application Module (Recorded Webinar by ISBE)

Community Eligibility Provision: Serving free meals to all students, regardless of income (Webpage by No Kid Hungry Center of Best Practices)

CEP Evaluation & Application Module (Fact Sheet by ISBE)

MealsCount USDA CEP Grouping Tool (Tool by MealsCount)