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This fall, 12 Portland schools will no longer offer CEP programs for their students due to financial recalculations.

Why 12 Portland schools dropped their free meal program

Funding issues made the federal CEP program unsustainable.

When students at 12 of Portland, Ore.’s public schools head back to class this fall, they’ll no longer have access to universal free lunch.

When district officials were forced to re-evaluate their eligibility for the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), they found that the program was no longer affordable.

CEP is a non-pricing service option for school districts in low-income areas that allows a school to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all of its students, including those who would otherwise qualify for paid meals. If 40 percent or more of a school’s students are served by income-restricted programs (like SNAP), all students can eat for free. This eliminates meal application paperwork for families and cuts back on legwork for schools, which don’t have to process the applications to determine individual eligibility.

It also eliminates the stigma that’s sometimes tied to school lunches. With CEP, meal participation in some Portland schools had doubled. “It reduces the idea of school food being just for kids who can’t afford to bring their own, and that was great,” says Whitney Ellersick, MS, RDN, Portland Public Schools assistant director of nutrition services.

But for some schools, like those in Portland, CEP can be tougher financially. Under the provision, schools receive the full reimbursement rate only for the percentage of students it claims as eligible for free meals. But for the remaining percentage of students who are still claimed under the paid rate, schools are only reimbursed 33 cents per meal. That can make it hard for qualifying schools with lower free claim rates—usually in the 40 percent to 50 percent range—to cover their food and labor costs without additional funding.

That’s what happened in Portland. When the district first established the provision in 2013, it chose to do so for 25 of its schools. Some of the schools had free meal claim rates as high as 80 percent, while others were much lower. “By grouping them, you have those mixtures of free claim percentages that seem to balance out overall, and you can include more schools,” Ellersick said. “It gave a nice cushion that helped the schools claiming at a lower rate of 40 percent to 50 percent.”

Normally, CEP requires schools to re-evaluate their free and paid claim percentages every four years. But a district also needs to re-evaluate if it undergoes a major change, like adding a new school or closing an old one. In Portland, one of the district’s K-8 schools that participated in CEP began sending its sixth, seventh and eighth grade students to a non-CEP school. “Even though it was only 72 kids out of 12,000, we had to re-establish claiming percentages for the entire group,” Ellersick says.

After it re-evaluated, the district found that the claiming percentages at some of their schools had fallen. “We had 12 schools between 40 percent and 50 percent that wouldn’t be able to break even,” Ellersick said. It was clear that CEP would no longer be sustainable with that many schools losing money. That’s forcing the schools to drop CEP and go back to the old way of using individual applications to determine free or reduced meal eligibility. Students who aren’t eligible—or whose families don’t want to apply—will have to pay the full price for lunch. (Free breakfast will still be available to students who want it.)

What accounted for the lower claim rates? Partly, it was simply due to changes in Portland’s demographics. But among families who still qualified for SNAP benefits, fewer were applying than in years’ past. “Community partners tell us that some families say the paperwork isn’t worth the value they get in SNAP benefits,” Ellersick says.

The change, which was announced in late July, will mean more work for both families and schools. “It’s another piece of paper for families, and more processing on our end to determine eligibility,” Ellersick says. Staff will also have to go back to identifying and claiming students appropriately in the lunch line, contacting families when a student runs out of money on their meal account. “That’s another chunk of time that’s taken away from preparing and serving food, and taking care of kids,” Ellersick says.

There’s still some hope, though.  “There are some positive things that can come from the lessons learned with CEP,” Ellersick says. Hopefully, they’ll lead to program shifts that create more efficiencies for providing free school meals. “Ultimately, we want to feed every kid,” she says.  

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