New Program Eliminates Need for Individual Applications for Free School Lunch

By Brenda Flanagan

School’s almost out for summer, but administrators are already cooking up a new meal option. It’s called CEP — Community Eligibility Program — where families would no longer fill out individual financial aid applications, to qualify for free or subsidized meals.

Instead schools would get reimbursed based on the percentage of families that get federal assistance, like food stamps. It’s complicated and some skeptical parents find it hard to swallow.

“I would completely disagree with that. I don’t think it’s actually, it’s gonna backfire on them,” said Yvonne Garcia.

When asked how much kids depend on the meals, Fran Rodriguez said, “A lot because a lot of kids don’t have money at home to eat.”

“It is a good thing,” said Cecilia Zalkind.

Zalkind heads Advocates for Children of New Jersey. The agency tracks basic needs — like child hunger — and Zalkind thinks this new CEP will help.

“Because it allows districts to serve more kids. Community Eligibility streamlines the process of individual applications, so it is something we’re encouraging districts — especially those those with a high percentages of eligible children, to do,” Zalkind said.

The devil’s in the details. To qualify, districts must show at least 40 percent of its students receive certain federal assistance.

They could offer free meals to every child, then get reimbursed by the federal government at a set rate. About 60 New Jersey districts meet that standard — including Jersey City, where 78 percent of kids qualify, according to its food services director.

But Karen DeLaMater says Jersey City’s opting out because “We would lose money” under the program’s current formula.

“Jersey City has large poverty areas,” she says, “and would like to feed as many of our students universally, it would not be economically feasible at this time.” Zalkind understands the apprehension.

“New Jersey school funding is based on the percent of children eligible for free and reduced meals so there is some confusion about if they move away from those individual applications will that affect their school funding?” Zalkind relayed.

New Jersey’s Department of Education reassured districts, saying school funding is locked in for the 2014-15 year. The federal USDA — which oversees the school lunch program — offered advice and support according to Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.

“To give school boards the time to analyze both the financial implications for them and any related policy choices they might make. And we’d be happy to work with them,” said Concannon.

Districts have until the end of August to decide whether they’re in or out. Studies show kids who eat well, do well in school. The trick is getting everyone to the table.