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November 11, 2015

Leaving Food on the Table


Less than half of Virginia schools with high levels of students living in poverty have taken the necessary steps to provide free meals to their students under an important federal program. The Community Eligibility Program (CEP) uses federal funds to reimburse schools for providing breakfast and lunch at no charge to students, while reducing administrative work.   

Virginia saw tremendous growth in the program last year. The number of participating schools jumped to 206 for the 2015-2016 school year from just 86 schools the previous year. But that still leaves another 251 eligible schools – 55 percent – not participating.

The federal government provides the vast majority of support for CEP making it a great deal for eligible schools. Under CEP, the federal government fully reimburses schools for 64 to 100 percent of all meals served and partially reimburses for the rest. Schools that don’t participate in CEP are reimbursed for meals based on the family income of each student, which means that reimbursement for some students’ meals is below the cost of providing it and schools have to spend administrative resources on processing applications. By participating, schools save these administrative costs.

Schools also do not have to worry about collecting money from students for unpaid meals. These are meals provided to students at no cost with the expectation the students will pay the school back at a later day. This is a problem facing schools in Virginia Beach right now, where they have over $110,000 in unpaid meals from students. Schools participating in CEP do not have this challenge as meals are free for all students.

But, the most important benefit is that meals are free for students coming from struggling families, providing essential nutrition to children who may lack regular meals at home and making sure they aren’t trying to learn on an empty stomach.  

It’s a great deal for Virginia’s schools and students, and all eligible schools should take advantage of this opportunity next year. Virginia’s Department of Education identifies eligible schools and posts the application on their website. The list of eligible schools for next year will be available in April, 2016, and the application will likely be due at the end of June, but that doesn’t mean schools can’t take action now. Eligible schools that did not participate this year should begin coordinating with other schools to submit a group application or prepare to submit their own application by reviewing the application process on DOE’s website.

Schools can’t afford to miss out on this program and leave free food on the table. And neither can the kids.

–Chris Duncombe, Policy Analyst

Photo: US Department of Agriculture CC-BY-2.0

The Commonwealth Institute

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