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What if schools could remove the stigma around free meals typically provided to low-income students by instead, handing them out to everyone? That’s exactly what a new program seeks to do.

Known as the Community Eligibility Provision, this voluntary district-based program will be available to all eligible schools nationwide for the first time in the 2014-15 school year. (It was created as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010). CEP allows schools that qualify to forgo collecting meal program applications and provide breakfast and lunches to all students at no charge.

Since qualifying schools are ones that have at least 40 percent of their students receiving assistance through some other social service program (think foster care, Head Start, food stamps), this program eases burdens for schools with lots of needy kids. It allows them to focus on the nutritional needs of their students, rather than administrative and paperwork headaches. It is also cost-effective: Schools that have implemented CEP have seen increased participation in the school meal programs, which brings down the cost per meal and creates savings for schools.

About 4,000 schools across 10 states and the District of Columbia currently participate. Floyd County, Ky., even gives students free breakfast in the classroom during the first 10 minutes of class time. As a result, breakfast participation has doubled, and the district has achieved its highest attendance rate ever (95 percent). In West Virginia, where schools have implemented CEP, more than 110,000 students, about 2 in 5 statewide, now participate in the free meals program.

Because CEP eliminates school meal applications, implementation requires identifying alternative data sources for programs like Title I that currently use free or reduced-price meal eligibility. State and district staff working on affected programs will need to identify the best policy for them.

To learn more about CEP, stop by one of two briefings tomorrow with the Food Research and Action Center and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities: 10 a.m. in room 2360 of the Rayburn House Office Building or 2 p.m. in room 328A of the Russell Senate Office Building. If you can’t do that, visit these CEP resources from the United States Department of Agriculture or FRAC.

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