BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The (CEP) is now available nationwide, yet some districts are hesitant to implement it for fear of losing data from school meal applications. But to get the data, we need not sacrifice school meals for kids.
Across the country, teachers and school nutrition administrators have praised CEP, which allows high-poverty schools to feed all students breakfast and lunch at no charge, for streamlining the school meal programs. One of its key benefits is that participating schools don’t collect meal applications or make individual eligibility determinations, removing an administrative burden on school districts. Instead, whole schools qualify to implement CEP based on the share of their students who are automatically approved for school meals because their families are enrolled in an anti-poverty program like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) or because they are at risk of hunger due to being homeless or in foster care.
While eliminating meal applications simplifies school meal programs, school districts have long used the income data from applications to gauge a school’s or family’s poverty level to target education funding or other benefits to the most needy. As a result, it’s critical that CEP not disadvantage high-poverty schools or low-income children with regard to education funding or services. It is equally important that an interest in data from school meal applications not stand in the way of making it easier for low-income children to receive the nutritious meals they need at school.
School districts and states that need a data source to replace the meal applications can use one of many available alternatives. The U.S. Department of Education has issued detailed and flexible guidance on how CEP schools can fully participate in Title I, the federal education funding stream for disadvantaged students. The guidance offers three main options for alternative data that school districts can use when implementing CEP. The states that adopted CEP over the past few years have praised the flexible options.
States have taken different approaches with regard to their own education funding and other benefits that states and school districts allocate based on meal application data. Louisiana and Texas, for example, are relying on the data that remains available through the school meal programs (Louisiana combines it with data from other programs). States like Kentucky and Michigan have school districts collect individual income information outside the meal programs, which makes sense when the data are needed for other purposes. California requires school districts to collect individual income data, but they can then use the data for four years.
Changing data sources does require administrative adjustments and may result in modest shifts in funding allocations. But we hope that schools’ desire for data about which children are struggling with poverty and food insecurity won’t stand in the way of alleviating those hardships.