USDA’s “Expanded” Access to School Meals Falls Short

September 27, 2023

Katie Herndon Dawkins, North Carolina Alliance For Health Communications Manager

On Tuesday, the USDA pushed out a press release titled, “USDA Expands Access to School Breakfast and Lunch for More Students.” The title is confusing and, frankly, misleading. What the USDA did was lower the Identified Student Percentage or ISP for schools to be able to participate in the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) from 40% to 25%. It did not increase reimbursements for school meals or provide any additional funding to allow more schools to participate in CEP.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Identified Student Percentage (ISP) is the percentage of students living in households participating in certain income-based federal assistance programs like WIC, SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid. 
  • The Community Eligibility Program (CEP) is a simplified meal service option that allows qualifying schools to provide meals at no cost to all students without requiring families to apply for free and reduced-price meals. Instead, school districts receive federal funding based on a formula using existing data from SNAP, WIC, TANF, Medicaid, and other programs (the ISP). 
  • The CEP formula is complicated. The higher the ISP, the higher the level of federal reimbursement the school receives. The ISP is multiplied by 1.6 to determine the percentage of meals that will be reimbursed at the free rate, the highest rate of reimbursement. So, a school with an ISP of 25% would be reimbursed at the free rate for 40% of meals served since 25 x 1.6 = 40. The remaining 60% of meals served would be reimbursed at the paid rate. The current free reimbursement rate for breakfast is $2.28 and lunch is $4.25. The paid reimbursement rate is only $0.38 for breakfast and $0.40 for lunch. 
  • When schools participate in the CEP program, no students pay for meals. This means that having less than half of the meals reimbursed at the free rate is problematic because it does not provide schools with enough funds to cover the cost of producing the meal. 
  • Local or state funds must fill any gaps between program costs and federal support. 
  • The new rule allowing for more schools to participate in the CEP program does NOT provide any extra federal funding and does NOT increase the multiplier. 
  • Schools that are now eligible to participate in CEP based on the new USDA rule would have to make up the difference between how much it costs to provide meals at no cost to families and the federal reimbursement rate they would receive.
  • Many schools and districts are not able to participate in CEP because the school nutrition programs are not able to fill the gap between program costs and federal reimbursements for meals.
  • Without additional federal funding and increasing the multiplier, this new rule effectively changes nothing for the students and families in North Carolina who could benefit from no-cost school meals. 
  • While the press release states that the “USDA offers extensive financial support for schools,” the reality is that with the cost of food and supply chain issues, the federal reimbursements aren’t keeping up with the cost of meals served.