More Tennessee schools qualify for free school meals
5 mins read

More Tennessee schools qualify for free school meals

Trays of food in the school cafeteria. (KOIN)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — More Tennessee schools can now serve students free breakfast and lunch after a rule change from the federal government.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is an optional program for eligible schools in the country that provides free school meals to students. It was authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and allows schools to eliminate the need to apply for household income to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

To be eligible for CEP, a school, group of schools, or school district must meet a certain threshold of enrolled students in need based on income level. For many years, the threshold required was 40 percent of enrolled students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

But last September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered the required percentage of students to just 25%, allowing more students in the country to eat free meals. The rule went into effect in October.

Tullahoma City Schools is just one of the school districts celebrating the switch to CEP for the upcoming school year. School officials said they will also have more options for students who need breakfast at school.

“We are excited about this new opportunity and will be offering breakfast at alternate locations and during extended hours to ensure that all students can start the day with energized bodies that will help enhance their learning experience and prepare them for success,” said TCS Nutrition Director Angela White. “Even better news is that every child automatically qualifies for free meals, so no applications are required for free and reduced-price meals. This streamlines our process and eliminates the hassle of paperwork.”

Additionally, Tennessee announced in early 2023 that it is joining 13 other states that use Medicaid data to determine CEP eligibility.

According to the USDA, the move will allow Medicaid eligibility data to “directly corroborate” students’ eligibility for CEP, thereby helping schools and school districts meet the required threshold to provide free meals to students.

“Direct certification reduces errors in school meal program administration and helps ensure that children in need receive healthy meals at school,” U.S. Department of Food and Nutrition Administrator Willie C. Taylor. “Direct certification reduces the administrative burden on schools and simplifies the application process for families—plus.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, CEP is a voluntary decision by each school district, but officials must be confident that participating in CEP is cost-effective.

“The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) gives school districts greater flexibility to offer free meals to all enrolled students when financially feasible and helps with the administrative burden of collecting household applications. With the new minimum Identified Student Program (ISP) percentage threshold, more districts were eligible for CEP. Participation in CEP also increased as a result of Tennessee’s participation in the Medicaid Demonstration Pilot, which allowed LEAs to use Medicaid data (for students already eligible or receiving Medicaid benefits) to determine ISP percentages,” said Media Director Brian Blackley.

“The USDA changed its requirements, so more LEAs decided to inquire about CEP or chose CEP because of the changes at USDA and the Medicaid pilot,” he added.

For several years now, Nashville has been celebrating and practicing the principle of providing more students with free, nutritious meals.

According to district spokesman Sean Braisted, Metro Nashville students have been receiving free meals since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. At first, the free meals were provided through the USDA COVID-related waiver program. Later, the meals came from additional funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program and the Metro Nashville government, Braisted told News 2.

“Nutritious meals are essential for effective learning, growth and development,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools. “Providing all students with a free meal is not only the moral and right thing to do, but it will also improve their academic and social-emotional development throughout the school day.”

“We will continue this into the 2024-2025 school year,” Braisted added, “so students attending schools not covered by the CEP program will continue to receive free meals.”

And while Metro Schools doesn’t have internal empirical data tied specifically to school nutrition programs, Braisted said the district has seen year-over-year growth and improvement in TCAP scores since the introduction of free school meals. The district’s growth also outpaced statewide growth in several areas for the third year in a row since testing resumed for all students in the 2021-2022 school year.

Outside of pandemic-era programs, most Metro Nashville schools are eligible for CEP. Of the 142 schools in Metro Nashville, 111 are eligible. Based on 2023-2024 enrollment data, 58% of Metro students are eligible for CEP with recently expanded Medicaid certification. Before the expansion, that percentage would have been 47.65%, according to Braisted.