More schools in Tennessee are eligible for free school meals
More schools in Tennessee are eligible for free school meals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – After a change in regulations by the federal government, more schools in the state of Tennessee will be able to offer free breakfast and lunch to their students.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is an optional program for eligible schools nationwide that provides free school meals to students. Authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, it allows schools to waive the need for household income applications 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 high-need students based on income level. For many years, the required threshold was 40% of enrolled students receiving free or reduced-price meals.

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

Tullahoma City Schools is just one of many 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 to eat breakfast at school.

“We are excited about this new opportunity and will offer breakfast in alternate locations and at longer times to ensure all students can start the day with a fueled body, helping to enhance their learning experience and prepare them for success,” said TCS Nutrition Director Angela White. “Even better news is that every child is automatically eligible for free meals, eliminating the need for free or reduced meal applications. This streamlines our process and eliminates paperwork.”

In addition, in early 2023, the state of Tennessee announced that it would join 13 other states in using Medicaid data to determine CEP eligibility.

According to the USDA, this move will allow students to be “directly certified” for CEP based on Medicaid eligibility data, helping schools and school districts meet the necessary threshold to provide free meals to students.

“Direct certification reduces errors in the administration of school meal programs and helps ensure that children in need receive healthy meals at school,” said Willie C. Taylor, USDA Food and Nutrition Service administrator for the Southeast Region. “Direct certification also reduces administrative burdens for schools and simplifies the application process for families.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, the decision to participate in CEP is voluntary for each school district and the district must ensure that participation is financially viable.

“The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) gives school districts more flexibility to offer free meals to all enrolled students when financially feasible and eases the administrative burden of collecting household requests. With the new minimum Identified Student Percentage (ISP) threshold, more districts became eligible for CEP. An increase in CEP participation was also due to Tennessee participating in a Medicaid demonstration pilot that allowed LEAs to use Medicaid data (for students already eligible or receiving Medicaid benefits) for their ISP percentages,” said Media Relations Director Brian Blackley.

“The USDA has changed its requirements, so as a result of the USDA changes and the Medicaid pilot program, more LEAs have decided to inquire about or opt for CEP,” he added.

Providing free, nutritious meals to more students has been a concern and practice in Nashville for several years.

According to district spokesperson Sean Braisted, students in Metro Nashville have been receiving free meals since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Initially, the free meals were provided through a COVID-related USDA waiver program. Later, the meals came from additional funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program and Metro Nashville City Council, Braisted told News 2.

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

“We will continue this in the 2024-2025 school year,” Braisted added, “so that students attending a non-CEP school will continue to receive free meals.”

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

Aside from pandemic-era programs, most schools in Metro Nashville qualify for CEP. Of the 142 schools in Metro Nashville, 111 qualify. Based on 2023-2024 enrollment numbers, 58% of Metro students with the newly expanded Medicaid certification will qualify for CEP. Before the expansion, the figure would have been 47.65%, according to Braisted.

By Liam