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Program Basics

CEP is a federal provision that allows high-poverty schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. This option increases school meal participation by removing stigma, maximizes federal reimbursements, reduces administrative paperwork, and eliminates unpaid school meal debt. CEP schools continue to operate both the School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs, and must uphold nutrition standards and meal quality, but processes and procedures for counting and claiming reimbursable meals are simplified. CEP is available to any school, group of schools or district that has 40% or more students directly certified for free school meals, by means other than a school meal application.

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How CEP Works

CEP schools:

  • Must provide both breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost.
  • Do not track meals by fee category (i.e. free, reduced-price, paid). They simply count the total number of meals served.
  • Do not collect payment/fees from students.
  • Do not collect and verify school meal applications. Note: In New York State, schools must still collect alternative household income forms for other state and local funding. Learn more about best practices for collecting income forms here.


Any district, group of schools in a district, or individual school with 40% or more “identified students”—children eligible for free school meals who are identified by means other than an individual household application—can participate in CEP.

Identified students include:

  • Children directly certified for free school meals because their household participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and in certain instances, Medicaid.
  • Children certified for free school meals without an application because they are homeless or a runaway, migrant, in foster care, or participating in Head Start.

Direct certification helps determine which schools are eligible for CEP and what percentage of meals will be reimbursed at the free rate. This resource can help schools identify which students are directly certified for free school meals and improve their direct certification process. See our tip sheet for details.

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CEP with a lower Identified Student Percentage (40% to 60%)

There is a misconception that CEP is only cost effective if all meals—or nearly all meals—are reimbursed at the free rate. Cost savings associated with CEP implementation is an important consideration for schools with lower Identified Student Percentage (ISP)—above 40% but below 60%. They can often cover the cost of meals served to students who would otherwise pay. Examples include:

  • Administrative savings from eliminating processing and verifying school meal applications
  • Participation increases under CEP allow for economies of scale for food and labor costs
  • Savings from eliminating unpaid meal balances – both administrative costs of collecting fees and actual unpaid school meal fees.
  • Because of how CEP schools are reimbursed, however, schools with identified student percentages near the 40% threshold may need to identify other resources if their meal reimbursements do not fully cover the cost of serving meals at no charge to all students. In many such schools, adopting CEP is still an important strategy. Some schools have used income from catering programs or a la carte sales to supplement the cost.
  • Many local decision makers realize the benefits of CEP, and are willing to contribute non-federal funds, if needed, to optimize student academic achievement.

Additional Resources:

How to apply

Schools must apply to the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to participate in CEP. Each year, applications are due June 30, in order for a school to implement CEP in the coming school year. Visit NYSED’s website to apply.

Eligibility is based on the percentage of identified students calculated using enrollment as of April 1 and all direct certification data from the same school year.

Maximizing CEP’s Impact

Once free breakfast is available to all students, CEP schools can make it more accessible by incorporating it into the school day, with Breakfast After the Bell programs including Breakfast in the Classroom, Grab and Go and Second Chance Breakfast.

Schools that implement CEP without alternative breakfast service models have seen minimal increases in breakfast participation when compared to schools that have implemented CEP in addition to a Breakfast after the Bell program. By far, the combination of Breakfast After the Bell and CEP yields the largest increase in participation.

We can help

We can provide you with resources, data, and best-practices to improve participation in school meal programs. We provide tailored one-on-one assistance to schools, supported by extensive district-level analysis, to help:

  • Increase access to and participation in the School Breakfast Program
  • Implement alternative breakfast service models
  • Offer universal meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)
  • Maximize direct certification, program participation, and funding for successful meal programs.

Contact Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, Child Nutrition Programs Specialist, for assistance.

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