This year, elementary school students throughout Providence Public Schools can get a free breakfast and lunch from their cafeterias. This change comes because the city’s school board decided to take part in the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program under the United States Department of Agriculture that provides meal service money to low-income school districts.
Providing children with free or reduced lunch is not something new for Providence Public Schools. Last year, the school board implemented CEP in 13 of 22 elementary schools in the district as part of a pilot program. The pilot program was successful, so the school district decided to fully implement CEP, said Laura Hart, communications director of Providence Public Schools. Before CEP, school children in Providence still had the opportunity to receive a free or reduced-price lunch if their income fell below a certain level, Hart said. CEP differs because, instead of requiring individual families to show financial need to secure free meals at school, the program evaluates school districts as a whole, which means that all students within the Providence district are covered.
Despite the convenience CEP can provide to school districts and students, “it is ultimately a district decision to go CEP or not,” said Megan Geoghegan, communications officer of the Rhode Island Department of Education. For this reason, some districts in Rhode Island may not participate in CEP, though they are eligible. “We, of course, want to be helpful and supportive as schools and districts find innovative ways to expand nutrition access to all students, whether that’s through CEP or other initiatives,” Geoghegan added.
But it is also clear that “hungry kids don’t learn,” said Andrew Viveiros, general manager of Sodexo, the Nutrition Solutions team for Providence Public Schools. Recent studies show that hunger negatively impacts students’ ability to learn and perform well in the classroom, according to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study. Viveiros also cited anecdotal evidence from school nurses across various districts, who told him that “the number of students complaining from headaches or stomach aches has dropped drastically because they’ve had breakfast.”
If a district is eligible for the program, it can choose to opt into it. District eligibility for CEP is determined through a variety of indicators. First, at least 40 percent of enrolled students in the school district must be eligible for free school meals, according to CEP guidelines. Other indicators of eligibility are school “demographics” or “percentage of people who are getting (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits,” Hart said. Besides mitigating the effects of hunger in the classroom, CEP can serve school districts by removing the need for parents of elementary school children to fill out individual income-related paperwork, which eases the administrative burden of the free meal process, according to the CEP guidebook.
The CEP is being implemented in the city at the elementary level but not the secondary level, Hart said. At the secondary level, eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch is still based on an individual income level.