Expand Free School Lunch (and Breakfast) with Reduced USDA CEP Eligibility Requirements

Make the most of reduced CEP eligibility requirements (part of USDA’s proposed changes) to serve more meals free of charge.

School lunch tray: Reduced USDA CEP Requirements

The USDA recently solicited comments about a proposed change to its Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) eligibility rule. While the proposed changes likely won’t take effect until the 2024/25 school year, now’s the time to determine if the change could negatively impact your nutrition program and how you want to proceed.

CEP1 helps eligible schools offer no-cost meals to qualified students without collecting household applications. It’s a reimbursement alternative for local agencies and schools that take part in the national School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. The goal of CEP is to accelerate the fight against child hunger. It’s a program designed for efficiency that reduces administrative burden and eliminates the need for schools to collect household income applications.

USDA proposes reducing the 40% ISP threshold in the CEP

CEP started in 2010. Since 2013, the program required an identified student percentage (ISP) of 40%—focusing support on schools with students most in need. The ISP population is defined by the students certified for free school meals because of qualifying for federal benefits and programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). However, the current threshold struck many as too high since it was created. Public feedback played a role in the USDA’s proposal to lower it.

Through federal pandemic relief funding, many states expanded free meal offerings over the last couple of years, but those grants recently expired. That further drives the desire to expand the CEP rule, and advocates are asking governments at state and federal levels to step in.   

Updating the CEP to increase participation and serve more students

The USDA intends to provide more local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with the option to participate in CEP by lowering the minimum ISP participation threshold from 40% to 25%. Because of ongoing support and positive feedback received, they believe the change is warranted. 

For a full view of the USDA program and what changes are being proposed, visit the Federal Register2. Electing CEP is not a requirement, and local schools and communities can decide if they would like to participate.  

New USDA CEP qualifications for schools, districts, and states

  • An LEA, group or district of schools, or a single school must have an ISP of at least 25% as of April 1 in the prior school year.  
  • Individual schools may qualify with an ISP lower than 25% provided that the group’s or district’s aggregate ISP meets the new threshold.  
  • Participation in both the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program continues as a requirement. 
  • All lunches and breakfasts still go to all students at no charge.

If you aren’t sure how this will impact your district, ICN created a guide3 to help you calculate the breakeven point and the financial impact it could have on your district.

What you need to know about USDA student nutrition changes in 2023

In addition to the CEP changes, the USDA also proposed changes to the Meal Patterns. We created a Cheat Sheet of USDA Proposed Meal Pattern Changes for a quick overview of everything you need to know. For a deep dive into potential changes and tips to prepare, watch our on-demand webinar hosted by LINQ’s in-house nutrition program experts. 

As the leader in K‑12 nutrition and meal payments software, LINQ is here to ensure you have the information you need to prepare for potential changes. 

1 USDA Community Eligibility Provision 

2 National Archives and Records Administration: Federal Register 

3 Institute of Child Nutrition: Essential KPIs for School Nutrition Success