Schools need to sign up now for fed food program

Initiative provides free breakfast and lunch

REGARDLESS OF HOW schools approach reopening in the fall, many Massachusetts schools face a choice right now that could affect nutrition and local economic stimulus in 2021 and beyond.

That choice is whether to take advantage of a federal option to provide universal free school meals to all children. Many school districts and individual schools have the choice to enroll in the US Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, program.

CEP is a program that allows schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students, without collecting household applications, co-payments, or meal fees. The program makes great financial sense to schools with moderate to high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. Haverhill successfully adopted CEP and provided universal free meals to over 4,400 Haverhill school children.

The federal government funds every meal for the districts and individual schools that enroll. And, when schools closed down in March, the federal government provided pandemic electronic benefits transfer, or p-EBT, cards to every single student in CEP districts. On the ground, this meant that Haverhill provided $400 in p-EBT benefits to 4,434 Haverhill children, totaling $1.8 million in federal stimulus to our local economy.

School districts across the nation have until August 31, 2020 to enroll in the program.

Eligibility for CEP depends on the number of students enrolled in federal assistance programs such as SNAP or Medicaid. The economic impact of the pandemic has made many more districts eligible for CEP. Since February, we have seen a 20 percent increase in the number of Massachusetts residents enrolled in SNAP alone. Massachusetts has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and one in five families in the Commonwealth are now food insecure.

Furthermore, school districts that file for CEP by the end of August can “lock in” their data on the number of economically disadvantaged students for up to four years. These numbers can still be updated to reflect increases along the way. This means greater federal reimbursement for school meals for four years. Without enrolling now, districts will miss the opportunity to count the highest number of students and families.  Massachusetts school districts will forgo the federal reimbursement for every meal, and they will decline the potential millions of dollars in p-EBT stimulus for families and the local economies.

In short, now is the time for eligible school districts to apply and lock in this much needed federal relief for our families and students.  Haverhill figured it out in 2019, and CEP has been a game changer for our schools and ensured that every student received the $400 pandemic EBT benefits.

The state funding formula and the federal CEP are both based on very similar counts of low-income students. This has created some confusion for some districts concerned that they might lose state funding under CEP. However, this is not the case. While these counts are similar, school funding is set by the Massachusetts Legislature and the CEP requirements are set by the USDA and Congress.

Under the Student Opportunity Act, the Legislature made the commitment to ensure districts are able to more accurately count low-income students, even in the absence of National School Lunch Program applications. Moreover, enrolling in CEP does not prevent a district from collecting low-income data for the purposes of state funding. This is how other states and existing CEP districts do it. No district should be concerned that CEP can lead to a loss in state education funding. Enrolling in CEP has been revenue positive for districts.

Meet the Author

Andy Vargas

State Representative, Massachusetts Legislature
Maximizing federal aid is vital to riding out this storm and coming out stronger. Earlier this legislative session I filed H.585, which would require schools with high concentrations of low-income students to enroll in CEP or vote to opt-out with a hardship waiver submitted to the state. Districts don’t have to wait for this bill to pass. They can enroll in CEP now.

I urge districts to act swiftly before the August 31 deadline. The need is great, and the window of opportunity is narrowing. Delaying will only deprive districts of important federal dollars, deny families a vital resource, and pass on the opportunity for local economic stimulus.

Rep. Andy X. Vargas represents Haverhill in the House of Representatives. He sits on the Ways and Means, Education, Public Health and Small Business committees.