PARKE COUNTY — Students enthusiastically wait in line for breakfast at Rosedale Elementary this school year, with participation nearly doubling over last year.

Many more are getting school lunches as well.

The reason? The school is participating in a USDA program called Community Eligibility Provision [CEP], in which qualifying schools in lower-income areas provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

For Lory Sciotto, who has four children at Rosedale, “It has been a relief financially but also it just lessens my workload in the morning. It’s one less thing I have to do” because she knows the kids will have breakfast at school.

Her children eat both meals at school, which saves the family quite a bit of money.

Schools that participate in CEP no longer collect individual applications from households for free and reduced-price meals. Instead, information from other need-based programs, such as SNAP or TANF, is used to determine the level of funding schools receive for meal programs. The students are “directly certified.”

For a school to qualify, at least 40 percent of its students must be directly certified, and that number is different from the school’s percentage of students qualifying for free/reduced-cost lunches.

A district must cover any cost above federal reimbursement with non-federal funds, and the possibility of losing money through participation is a concern for some districts.

“Participation is voluntary, so local administrators decide whether CEP makes financial and practical sense for their schools,” according to the USDA website.

“A school or group of schools has to be at 62.5 percent directly certified for all meals served to be paid at the ‘free’ reimbursement rate,” said Adam Baker, Indiana Department of Education spokesman. “Schools may lose money from normal claiming if they are significantly less than the 62.5 percent.”

The program is available to schools participating in the national school lunch and breakfast programs.

IMPROVED PARTICIPATION

On a recent Friday, Rosedale students eagerly went through a lunch line that included hot dogs, green beans, apple sauce, baked potato wedges, strawberries, brownies, milk and juice.

The CEP program has many benefits, said Jonella McClintock, food service director with Southwest Parke Community School Corp.

“We had a lot of kids that fell right at the cutoff for free/reduced. They made just a little bit too much money, and those were the families that were struggling,” McClintock said. “Now they can all eat” for free.

For some children, “This is the only meal they get,” she said.

While CEP is a four-year program, schools can opt out at the end of each year — but not mid-year.

Advantages of the program are that it “eliminates overt identification issues for students,” “improves nutrition to students at risk” and “increases breakfast and lunch participation,” according to the state Department of Education. Disadvantages, according to IDOE, are potential financial issues for a school corporation when all meals aren’t fully reimbursed at the “free” meal rate.

Also, the school/food service office is not collecting applications that also determine a student’s economic status for textbook assistance; as a result, it may be harder to collect applications for textbook assistance.

CEP SHOWS GROWTH STATEWIDE

Statewide, the program has grown steadily since 2015, when 24 school districts encompassing 191 school sites participated. In 2019, it grew to 76 school corporations encompassing 368 sites.

The number of sites is expected to grow again this year.

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