Universal free meals coming to high-poverty schools in eight districts

Eight Colorado school districts, most small and rural, are participating in a new federal program that will allow them to offer universal free meals in some or all of their schools.

The program, called Community Eligibility Provision or CEP, could feed more than 12,000 students in participating districts—with no application for free or reduced-price meals required. While CEP is intended to reduce child hunger and make life easier for families, some districts shied away from the program this year for fear of losing state at-risk funding or because of concerns that meal reimbursements under CEP won’t be enough for food service departments to break even.

Among the districts trying out CEP this year are Harrison, Moffat Consolidated, Centennial, Mesa County Valley 51, Sierra Grande, South Conejos, Alamosa and Mountain Valley. Notably absent from the group of eight is Pueblo City Schools, where some administrators initially hoped to pursue the program.

Jill Kidd, the district’s director of nutrition services, said former Superintendent Maggie Lopez didn’t want to saddle the new superintendent with an untested program as she started the job in July.

“Mostly it had to do with the potential loss of at-risk funding,” said Kidd. “With the new superintendent and 6 new principals, the former superintendent didn’t feel she should do that before she retired.”

The reason that school administrators worry about the loss of at-risk funding under CEP is that parents aren’t required to submit Free/Reduced-Price Meal applications, which have historically helped determine schools’ low-income populations and their eligibility for the funds. While parents at CEP schools will now be asked to complete a similar form called a “Family Economic Data Survey” to help track poverty levels, it’s voluntary.

While Kidd said CEP could have saved her department much time and effort, she added, “You really don’t tell want to tell your district, I just took $6 million out of your pocket.”

Community Eligibility, which was piloted in six states and the District of Columbia over the past three years, is being rolled out nationally this fall. Schools or entire districts are eligible for the program for four years if 40 percent or more of their students are “directly certified,” which means they are identified as low-income because they receive certain types of government benefits such as SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program), or are classified as homeless, migrant or in foster care.