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Most eligible Indiana schools hesitant to sign up for federal free meal program, per new report

The CEP program provides free breakfast and lunches to students at schools with high poverty rates.

By Casey Smith,

The lion’s share of Hoosier schools that qualify for a federal free meal service program don’t take advantage of it, according to a new national report.

Across the country, 6,419 school districts — 67.5 percent of those eligible — adopted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) in one or more schools for the 2022– 2023 school year, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) reported in a new analysis.

But in Indiana, only 40.6% of eligible school districts — and 51.7% of eligible schools overall —  adopted CEP in the most recent academic year.

Although Indiana was among the 39 states that saw an increase in the number of schools adopting community eligibility, the Hoosier state still ranks 47th in the nation for CEP participation.

The program allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of their economic status. Child health advocates and education experts laud the federal provision as a benefit to both students and school administrators.

No Kid Hungry, a non-profit organization that focuses on increasing access to healthy meals for children and alleviating childhood hunger, emphasized that kids are more attentive in class, have better attendance and are less likely to have disciplinary problems when their nutritional needs are met.

With CEP, families with tight food budgets are also ensured that their child is getting two balanced meals at school, reducing financial strain at home.

The program works for schools, as well, by eliminating school meals applications and unpaid meal charges that often create administrative burdens.

Some schools have recently adopted CEP as a way to continue offering healthy meals to all students — free of charge — after the expiration of the pandemic child nutrition waivers last year, according to FRAC.

But researchers said that many schools, including some in Indiana, choose not to participate out of fear that losing data from school meal applications may also result in the loss of Title 1 funding.

Indiana schools and districts have until June 30 to submit a CEP application for the 2023-24 school year. It’s not clear how many new applications have been submitted so far.

By the numbers

During the 2022–23 school year, there was a significant increase in the number of schools and districts nationwide participating in community eligibility, according to FRAC’s latest report.

While the number of participating schools in Indiana increased, too, the take-up rate among eligible schools overall decreased slightly.

Of the 1,148 schools eligible for CEP in the last school year, 593 participated, according to federal data collected by FARC. That’s up from 506 participating schools in the 2021-22 academic year, when 957 schools qualified.

Among those to join were Pike Township schools in Indianapolis, which serves nearly 11,000 students.

Of the 469 eligible Indiana schools where more than 60% of students qualify as high-need under CEP guidelines, 311 participated in the federal program in the 2022-23 school year — a 66.3% adoption rate.

About 52% of Hoosier schools with 50-60% high-need students — 200 of the 356 eligible schools — signed up. Participation dropped to 24.5% for those schools with high-need student enrollment at or below 50%; of the 323 schools that were eligible, only 77 took advantage of the program.

The Indiana Department of Education estimates that at least 1,100 schools will qualify for CEP in the 2023-24 academic year.

How CEP works — and why it helps

Families are not required to submit an application for the community provision like they would for the free and reduced meals program. That guarantees free breakfast and lunch for any student at a participating school.

Indianapolis Public Schools, as well as the surrounding Perry, Warren and Wayne school districts, are continuing to offer free meals – both lunches and breakfasts – to students through CEP for the 2023-24 school year. Certain MSD of Lawrence Township schools are also participating in CEP to provide free meals.

Thousands of students at other Indianapolis-area schools — in the Decatur, Franklin, Speedway and Washington school districts — will not automatically get free food, though.

Some district officials previously told the Indiana Capital Chronicle they do not participate in CEP because of the federal program’s “complexity,” while others noted that their schools do not qualify for complete meal reimbursement, meaning districts have to pay out-of-pocket to cover the rest.

For a school to qualify for the CEP, at least 40% of the individual school’s enrolled population must already participate in another means-tested program or are part of a protected group, such as students experiencing homelessness, in foster care, or migrant students.

Schools that meet the minimum threshold to qualify for the community provision receive reimbursement for 62.5% of meals served, according to federal guidelines. Schools with enrolled populations over 62.5%, where nearly two-thirds of students fall into the above categories, get fully reimbursed for students’ meals.

Schools with higher numbers of students in need receive a near or total reimbursement for meals, which makes community eligibility a more financially viable option. That also makes them more likely to participate in community eligibility, according to FRAC.

While any school with an enrolled population of 40% or more can participate, many schools on the lower end of the scale “fear participating” because the level of reimbursement from the federal government would not fully cover the cost of all meals served to students, said Allyson Pérez, a child nutrition policy analyst with FRAC.

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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