|U.S. Department of Agriculture chart|
The USDA Community Eligibility Program allows schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals for every child rather than doing so only for those in need. That means schools don't have to process individual applications, and the reduced paperwork saves them money. More than 10 million students in more than 20,000 high-poverty schools participated in the program in the 2016-17 school year, but rural schools did so at a lower rate than their urban counterparts. The study "found that only a third of eligible rural schools participated in the program, while 46 percent of eligible schools in urban areas did. The study also found that the Southeast had the highest percentage of eligible schools participating in the program," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.
Why would schools decide not to participate in CEP if the program feeds kids and saves money? The study's authors speculate that, in some cases, "Switching to CEP might increase demand for school meals in ways that put a strain on the district or a specific cafeteria. Also, districts might not be able to overcome the initial administrative hurdle of qualifying for CEP, even though it would save staff time in the long run," Oates reports. "CEP is a relative new approach to school nutrition programs that followed the update of school meal standards in 2012. Once the new standard was implemented, according to ERS, 'Schools in rural areas were more likely than other schools to report increases in student complaints, decreases in meal participation, and higher costs due to lower meal volume.'"
Rural schools also faced larger increases in the paid meal price when the Obama administration implemented the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. That meant fewer students wanted to buy lunch, and the cost of giving students free lunch increased further. Also, USDA's formula for reimbursing CEP schools may mean that CEP is not cost-effective for some rural schools.