Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)

AFT members emphatically support offering free school meals to all students

In a national survey, members put nutrition and hunger among their top three priorities for children’s health. We know that children’s health and well-being are intimately linked to their ability to learn and grow—and, ultimately, to gaps in achievement and equity that plague too many communities.

Providing nutritious school meals is an essential way to address both food security and hunger. For many AFT members’ schools, offering meals is possible with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program and/or School Breakfast Program. The USDA has also experimented with strategies to better serve students from low-income families and in areas with limited access to healthful foods.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 introduced a new solution for high-poverty schools: The Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP

The Community Eligibility Provision allows schools with many low-income students (40 percent or more) to serve breakfast and lunch for free. Families are no longer required to submit free and reduced-price meal applications. Instead, schools and districts “certify” that their students need support by checking for their enrollment in social support programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and, in some places, Medicaid. Students can also be certified if they are homeless, migrants, enrolled in Head Start or in foster care.[1]

While the program is still new in many places, its implementation has been linked to great benefits. For example, CEP:

  • Improves participation in school meal programs;
  • Reduces burdens on low-income families while better providing for high-poverty communities; and
  • Reduces administrative paperwork.

Schools also receive a higher reimbursement rate for each meal served under CEP than they would under the traditional meal programs, which allows enrolled schools and districts to focus more on children’s health than worrying about their budgetary bottom line. In a school with CEP, there are no individual student accounts to charge, so problems with overdue account balances and unpaid meals nearly disappear. For example, a survey by the AFT found that 1 in 3 members sees a problem with his or her school’s "cheese sandwich policies" at least once each week. These policies require school food service personnel to take away a child’s regular school lunch and replace it with a less nutritious meal when that child’s family owes money to the school nutrition program. In schools using CEP, members report significantly fewer problems with overdue account balances and alternate meals. More flexible funding also means that schools can get creative in how they serve meals, such as using “grab and go” kiosks and serving breakfast in the classroom.[2]

Bringing CEP to your community

District Food and Nutrition Service offices will be instrumental in determining whether CEP is possible and beneficial for your school and/or district. If you’re interested in talking with your local FNS about CEP, the following resources can prepare you for the discussion:

  • The USDA maps the schools and districts that are eligible for CEP across the country. Try to find your district or school.
  • Estimate potential cost savings with the USDA’s estimator tool.
  • Estimate other potential benefits of implementing CEP, including how it will affect your school food service program, workers, families, students and instruction. For example, CEP might make it easier for your school or district to:
    • Engage families and students in nutrition education, such as a campaign to increase breakfast consumption;
    • Reduce the presence and influence of “competitive foods,” such as à la carte items and fast foods; and/or
    • Develop a streamlined organic waste composting and recycling program.

[1]Food Research and Action Center. (2015). National School Lunch Program: Trends and factors affecting student participation. Retrieved from

[2]U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Education. (2014, February). Letter from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to chief state school officers highlighting the benefits of participating in CEP and how it interacts with Title I funding requirements. Retrieved from