Strategies for Finding Success with CEP


The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) enables eligible schools to serve free meals to all students, regardless of income. This resource explores strategies that maximize the benefits of CEP by improving meal participation rates, increasing the Identified Student Percentage (ISP), and generating revenue with savvy business practices. Below are just a few of the strategies we recommend - read more in the resource!

Increase participation in school meals. 

Incorporate scratch cooking. Students report a preference for hot, freshly prepared meals over pre-packaged meals. Where possible, doing more scratch cooking can enhance participation. If meals can be cooked onsite, students are drawn to the cafeteria by the aroma of freshly cooked food and participate more often. For full scratch and semi-scratch recipes, visit the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Smart Food Planner.

Add more points of service. Increased participation could result in increased congestion at points of service. To ensure that students can move quickly through lines and have enough time to eat, consider adding more points of service in your cafeteria at lunchtime or in your hallways if you are operating a Grab and Go breakfast.

Tally reimbursable meals served to speed up lunch lines. Rather than swipe student IDs or punch in student numbers, some schools favor tallying - on paper or with a clicker - each reimbursable meal served. Because you only need to claim the total meals served under CEP, tallying may be a faster solution for schools concerned about how increased participation may slow down lunch lines.


Increase your ISP.

Apply extended categorical eligibility. Students living in households with students who have already been directly certified can be automatically added to the ISP. This is referred to as extended categorical eligibility.

Utilize connections with social workers and homeless liaisons. Team up with your LEA’s homeless liaison or social worker responsible for supporting homeless, migrant, runaway, and foster care students. They will have the most current information regarding these categorically eligible students. Check in weekly or monthly to ensure that you capture students who may be categorically eligible and include them in your ISP.

Conduct direct certification as often as possible. The more often you conduct direct certification, the more likely you are to identify students who temporarily enroll in categorically eligible benefits. Even if a student only receives SNAP benefits for one month, for example, that student will remain directly certified all year if you keep records of their enrollment. Depending on the sophistication of your state’s direct certification process, some LEAs can conduct direct certification daily or weekly. If you have a large student population, you may consider hiring temporary workers to help with this process, but first make sure that you are complying with all confidentiality guidelines by talking to your state agency. LEAs report finding great benefit in directly certifying students at least monthly. This may be tedious, but LEAs often find the increased reimbursement to be worth it.


Manage program costs.

Calculate a ‘per plate’ cost and compare it to food and labor costs. To calculate ‘per plate’ costs, use the USDA’s Federal Reimbursement Calculator. Compare the ‘per plate’ cost to food and labor costs and make adjustments as needed.

Adhere to conservative hiring practices. Avoid immediately hiring new staff to support CEP. Wait a few weeks after implementing CEP to determine staff needs. Because CEP requires less paperwork, school nutrition staff can use that extra time to support increased meal participation. However, temporary cafeteria staff may be necessary to support the initial implementation of CEP.

Employ students to work in the school nutrition program. Employing students can save costs, increase student engagement, and provide student leadership opportunities.


Explore additional avenues for revenue generation

Provide afterschool meals. Operate the National School Lunch Program Afterschool Snack Program or the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) At-Risk Afterschool Meals Program to feed students an additional meal after the end of the school day and to bring in additional revenue. For afterschool meals support, check out No Kid Hungry’s wealth of resources.

Consider catering. Schools can generate additional revenue by catering school functions, such as school board meetings, as well as programs and events in the community.

Disallow outside vendors/caterers in school. Do not allow outside vendors/caterers to sell food at school during the official school day. This removes the competition from vendors/caterers and can boost sales by the school nutrition department.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) ensures that all students can participate in school breakfast and lunch at no cost to them, and CEP can also benefit school nutrition finances. This resource outlines strategies designed to help you maximize the benefits of CEP by increasing your Identified Student Percentage (ISP), managing program costs, generating revenue with savvy business practices, and improving meal participation rates.