As students head back to class, dozens of Iowa schools are preparing to offer free breakfast and lunch. A federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision or CEP pays for meals at select schools.

Patti Harding, at the Iowa Department of Education, says schools have to show they have a high percentage of students who qualify for free lunch through other federal programs like SNAP or welfare. “Then there are some other categories like being migrant or homeless,” Harding says, “and if they’re above 40 percent, then they’d be eligible to participate in CEP.”

Harding says some schools choose not to participate, even if they qualify. That’s often because the reimbursement rate is too low to make up their food budget. Harding says the program streamlines the paperwork for providing free meals by making them available to everyone.

All students in the school eat at no charge, so the parents are not paying for their meals,” she says. A total of 157 Iowa schools were part of the program in the 2018-19 school year. Based on preliminary numbers, Harding expects more Iowa schools to offer free lunch this year, but at fewer school systems overall.

(Thanks to Grant Gerlock, Iowa Public Radio)