Winooski School District

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More and more in Vermont, parents, teachers, principals, business managers, and superintendents are asking, “Why can”t we just provide every student with healthy, high quality meals at no charge, as part of their school day?”  We know that eating school breakfast and lunch improve students” ability to learn, attendance rates, and behavior.  We also know that eating school breakfast and lunch improve the quality of children’s diets and reduces their risk for obesity.

The Community Eligibility Provision is one option offered by USDA to support schools, districts, and supervisory unions seeking to provide universal (free) school meals to all students.  This fact sheet provides you with an overview of how Community Eligibility works, in order to help you determine if it is a good fit for your school.

At least 40% of all enrolled students must be directly certified to receive free school meals in order for a school or group of schools to use Community Eligibility.

How Community Eligibility Works

  • All students receive school breakfast and lunch without charge, regardless of their income.  The total number of reimbursable breakfasts and lunches served is counted daily, but it is no longer necessary to track which students ate which meals.
  • School meal applications are eliminated, along with the associated cost of collecting, processing, and verifying them.
  • Schools are reimbursed by USDA using a formula based on the number of “identified students” (these are students who are “directly certified” to receive free school meals because someone in their household is receiving 3SquaresVT or TANF, or because the student is homeless, in foster care, a migrant, or is participating in a Head Start or comparable State funded pre-kindergarten program).
  • It is critical that every student eligible for Direct Certification be identified and added to your school’s Direct Certification list.  The Direct Certification lists your SU or District receives frequently contain errors.  You may make corrections to these lists, as long as you document the evidence you have that justifies adding or removing students from the list.  Here are some examples of students you may add to your Direct Certification List:

o   If any member of a household receives 3SquaresVT or TANF, then ALL children living in that household are directly certified for free school meals.  Often, only one child will be on the Direct Certification list you receive, but you may add siblings, half-siblings, and even unrelated children living in that household.

o   You may add any student certified as homeless by your school’s Homeless Liaison.

  • At least 40% of the total number of students enrolled at the school (or at a group of schools) must be “identified students” (on your Direct Certification List) as of April 1 of the previous school year.

“Enrolled students” are those who have access to at least one school meal per school day (breakfast or lunch).  (In other words, this includes preschool students who only attend for a half-day.)


  • Schools may be combined in a “cluster,” as long as the average number of “identified students” in the “cluster” is 40% or higher.  The entire district or supervisory union does not have to participate.
  • Schools must inform the Agency of Education of their intent to participate in Community Eligibility and submit documentation no later than June 30th to begin using the Community Eligibility Provision in the next school year.  The required documentation is:  evidence of the percentage of “identified” enrolled students as of April 1, evidence that the school participates in the NSLP and SBP, and a record of administering the meal program in accordance with program regulations, as indicated by the most recent administrative review.

For Example

At Maple Tree School, 47% of the enrolled students are “identified” (directly certified to receive free school meals) as of April 1, 2014.

The Community Eligibility formula is:  % of identified students x 1.6

For Maple Tree School:  47% x 1.6 = 75.2%

This means that during the 2014-15 school year, Maple Tree School will be reimbursed by USDA for 75.2% of all meals served at the free rate, and the remaining 24.8% of all meals served at the full-pay rate.

(The higher the number of directly certified students, the higher the percentage of meals reimbursed at the free rate.  For example, if 55% of enrolled students are directly certified, 88% of all meals would be reimbursed at the free rate.)

Other Considerations Involved in Using the Community Eligibility Provision

  • The Provision remains in place for 4 years unless the school chooses to end it early, and can be renewed, as long as the percentage of identified students is 40% or higher at the time of renewal.  At the time of renewal, the claiming formula is recalculated.
  • Schools may end Community Eligibility at the end of any school year.  Schools implementing Community Eligibility are guaranteed that, even if their percentage of eligible students decreases, their free claiming percentage cannot decrease for four years (however, it can increase if the number of identified students increases).
  • Schools continue receiving USDA Foods (commodities) each year based on the number of reimbursable lunches they served the year before.  Since participation increases when all students receive meals at no charge, the amount of commodities will also increase under Community Eligibility.
  • In order to determine if the Community Eligibility Provision will work for your school, you need to have a very clear idea of your per-meal costs.  These include the cost of food, of course, but also all other costs associated with your school meal program, including labor, benefits, utilities, equipment, delivery fees, etc.
  • Schools may use the claiming percentages established using the Community Eligibility formula to determine the number of low income students at the school for purposes of Title I funding and for other federal programs for students based on family income during the subsequent years when Community Eligibility is in place.  However, since the actual students attending the school will change each year, income data may need to be collected to determine specific students” eligibility for certain programs, such as the waiver of fees for college entrance exams and college applications.


Any school, District, or Supervisory Union seeking to obtain socio-economic data from students would be required to develop, conduct, and fund this effort totally separate from, and not under the auspices of, the school meal program at any school using the Community Eligibility Provision.

  • When meals are made available at no cost to all students, participation rates will increase.  This will likely produce improved economies of scale and reduced labor costs.  At the same time, it will increase food costs.  These changes are difficult to calculate prior to implementing the Provision.
  • Schools would likely no longer receive the VT State supplements for reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, since the reduced-price category does not exist under Community Eligibility.
  • If the cost of providing school meals exceeds the reimbursement provided by USDA based on base year participation rates, the school must pay the difference using a source other than federal funds.
  • For many schools in Vermont, using the Community Eligibility Provision will require some additional funds in order for the meal program to “break even.”  However, if your school is like most in Vermont, you already are using additional funds to cover deficits in your school meal program such as unpaid meal charges.  Under Community Eligibility, you may be able to reduce the amount of your deficit, while at the same time, providing universal meals to all of your students as part of their education.
  • It is difficult to calculate the other benefits associated with providing universal school meals, such as improved student health, improved student learning, improved student attendance, and improved student behavior.  Research shows that all of these benefits are associated with the provision of universal school meals.  These improvements would likely lead to a reduced need for special education and para-educators.  These cost savings to the school’s budget would contribute over time to offsetting any additional costs incurred in the school meal program.

View Full Factsheet

Community Eligibility Factsheet

Community Eligibility Factsheet