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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 25% or more students directly certified for free school meals, by means other than a school meal application.

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New York's CEP State Subsidy

The enacted FY2024 State Budget included an additional $134.6M to expand access to free school meals through the new Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) State Subsidy. This funding became available to New York schools participating in CEP starting in the 2023-2024 school year. The CEP State Subsidy ensures all CEP meals are reimbursed at the “free rate”, allowing all eligible New York schools to provide free meals to all students while alleviating the financial burden.

The CEP State Subsidy is a critical step in New York’s expansion of free school meals. In the first year of implementation, the CEP State Subsidy enabled over 1,200 schools to newly adopt CEP, effectively expanding access to free school meals to more than 347,000 additional students.

Benefits of CEP

CEP Benefits Students and Schools:

  • Reduces the administrative burden—schools no longer collect fees or verify school meal applications
  • Eliminates the stigma—ending the perception that school breakfast and lunch are just for “poor kids”
  • Boosts participation—allowing more kids to experience the educational and health benefits linked to eating school meals
  • Simplifies counting and claiming—optimizing the impact of offering Breakfast After the Bell
  • Eliminates unpaid school meal debt—schools no longer have to foot the bill for unpaid meal fees or try to collect them from families

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.
  • All meals served in CEP schools are now reimbursed at the “free rate” with the CEP State Subsidy.


Any district, group of schools in a district, or individual school with 25% 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 that are 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.

How to apply

Eligible school districts must declare their intent to implement CEP in a school or group of schools for the upcoming school year by June 30. This requires applying to the New York State Education Department (NYSED).

Eligibility is based on the percentage of identified students calculated using enrollment as of April 1 and the current school year’s direct certification data. View the application and instructions.

Strategies to Sustain and Maximize CEP

Whether a school is already using CEP or considering applying, the following are key strategies to sustain the program and maximize its impact:

Effectively capture all low-income students: When determining eligibility and applying for CEP, schools must calculate their percentage of identified students—the number of students eligible for free school meals without an application from the total enrolled. Two strategies to effectively capture all low-income students include:

  1. Strong direct certification: When schools accurately reflect student poverty through strong direct certification, it better positions them to qualify for CEP and sustain the program over time. Learn more about direct certification best practices from our tip sheet.
  2. Connect Families to SNAP: By increasing the number of eligible families participating in SNAP, schools can also increase the number of identified students captured through direct certification. As trusted messengers, schools can use our SNAP Outreach Toolkit to spread the word to families.

Maximize CEP’s impact with Breakfast After the Bell: Once free breakfast is available to all students, CEP schools can further improve accessibility by incorporating breakfast into the school day with Breakfast After the Bell. Service models such as Breakfast in the Classroom, Grab and Go and Second Chance Breakfast increase participation by meeting students where they are and ensuring time to eat.

Schools that implement Breakfast After the Bell in combination with CEP see greater increases to school breakfast participation compared to schools that implement CEP without any alternative breakfast service models. This effect is most pronounced when breakfast is served in the classroom, rather than the cafeteria. We can help you get started or expand your existing program.


CEP & School Funding Streams:

Template Presentation
Use this template to make the case for CEP in your district. Customize with your own district’s data to drive home your pitch.

CEP Webinars from Hunger Solutions New York and No Kid Hungry New York
Note: these webinars were held throughout summer 2023, prior to the CEP rule change that lowered the eligibility threshold from 40% to 25%. Any references to the summer 2023 CEP application process or eligibility at 40% are now outdated, however all other aspects of CEP eligibility, enrollment, and implementation remain the same.

  • Tips for Communicating with Families about Free School Meals
    View the recording and slides
    Marketing your school meal programs is a key strategy for increasing participation. Learn how to effectively communicate with families about the availability of free school meals and the importance of submitting household income forms while meals are free.
  • Building Buy-in for CEP with School Leadership
    View the recording and slides
    Cultivate strong support for your program by learning how to communicate the basics of adopting community eligibility and how offering free meals to all students supports broader educational goals.
  • Maximizing Participation Under CEP
    View the recording and slides
    CEP offers streamlined counting and claiming to make it easier to implement innovative programming like Breakfast After the Bell. Maximizing participation can strengthen your programs while also feeding more kids. Learn how to leverage best practices to make the most out of CEP.

State Resources:

National Resources:

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 Francesca DiGiorgio, School Meals Policy & Engagement Specialist, for assistance.

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