Community eligibility ensures future success of Alabama’s child nutrition programs

Even during “normal” times, one in four Alabama children goes to bed each night uncertain where they’ll get their next meal. Sadly, the COVID-19 economic downturn has likely pushed that number higher.

Most days, hungry children can look forward to school meals to help keep them fed. But school closures amid the pandemic have disrupted this lifeline. Fortunately, several changes are helping, and the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is making those changes work even better.

How community eligibility helps replace lost school meals

Soon after the closures, schools across Alabama started revamping food plans to provide meals for on-site pickup and even delivery. It’s a job easier said than done. The COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act, passed in early March, allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to loosen its rules for school meal programs. But many communities found it difficult to manage the logistics, especially when it came to confirming family eligibility. As a result, access to the meals was inconsistent from one district to the next.

CEP participation played a big role in determining which programs worked best. CEP is a federal option available to schools and districts where at least 40% of students meet the family income requirement for free and reduced-price meals. Eligible schools can use this option to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all of their students.

Alabama schools that implemented CEP before 2020 avoided the time-consuming steps of verifying eligibility for each family and documenting the process for fee-based reimbursement. This allowed them to switch more easily to “non-congregate” food plans, or individual distribution of meals and snacks. With CEP, school child nutrition administrators only have to submit the number of meals served for reimbursement.

Since CEP became available five years ago, 360 Alabama schools have joined the program. Still, in 2019, more than 100 eligible schools had failed to adopt the streamlining. In non-emergency times, CEP eliminates the hurdle of processing school meal applications. And it removes the “free and reduced-price meals” classification from the lunch line altogether. This relieves students from social distinctions that can lead to teasing, stereotyping and outright shaming.

A firm foundation for emergency response

COVID-19 has highlighted the need to strengthen safety net programs supporting health and childhood nutrition throughout Alabama. Pandemic EBT (P-EBT), a newly available option administered by the state Department of Human Resources and Department of Education, addresses the disruption of services by issuing direct cash benefits to families participating in free or reduced-price school meals or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This includes households in high-poverty schools that provide meals to all students through CEP.

Alabama quickly sought and received federal approval to implement P-EBT. It was a remarkable example of state agencies coming together to fortify safety net programs during turbulent times. P-EBT soon will succeed in supplementing on-site school meal distribution – and even more can be done. Advocates are calling on federal lawmakers to increase SNAP benefits by 15% and extend P-EBT benefits through the summer.

While many of these initiatives are new and trail-blazing, CEP is proving to be a firm foundation for emergency response. What may have just seemed like an option for delivering the National School Lunch Program before this pandemic is now a proven measure for swiftly supporting food-insecure areas during times of greater need.

On the whole, our schools and supporting community organizations have done a remarkable job of continuing food service during an emergency that has blocked access to conventional learning spaces – and for too many children, access to their only guaranteed meal of the day. But we must do more than merely respond to potential emergent tragedies.

Gov. Kay Ivey should use her authority as chairwoman of the State Board of Education to recommend that all eligible schools and districts adopt CEP. Ivey should start by urging superintendents to complete a CEP application for all eligible Alabama schools by Aug. 1, 2020.