Marion County Public Schools has been renewed as a full Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) school district for another four-year cycle, which means all students in MCPS will continue to receive free meals.

The district received the status thanks to the information compiled and submitted by MCPS School Nutrition Director Jennifer Wheeler. The district’s elementary schools were already designated as CEP before the entire district qualified.

“When I started [as School Nutrition Director], one of the things that Mrs. Schlosser and I talked about was, if there was any way to get our middle and high schools CEP also, that was a goal,” Wheeler said. “We really worked hard and a lot of it goes into doing the legwork and gathering data.”

To be eligible, school districts must provide information showing the number of students that qualify for various types of federal benefits.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Wheeler said.

“Since we’ve been a full CEP district our [meal] participation has went up tremendously at the middle schools and high schools for breakfast and lunch both,” she added.

The CEP designation has also removed student lunch debt.

When Wheeler took over as the district’s nutrition director, there was “a huge amount of student lunch debt. What triggered that was that parents either didn’t fill out the free and reduced lunch form or did fill them out and were barely above the threshold.”

When Wheeler looked at the lunch debt numbers, she discovered that many were students who could not afford those debts. In total, there was close to $12,000 in lunch debt between middle and high school students.   

The move to free breakfast and lunch results in savings of nearly $1,000 per student per year based on the typical full price of school meals.

And improving the food items available has also been a goal of Wheeler’s. 

“We’ve worked really hard on making sure we’ve got good menus,” she said. “That’s the other piece of the puzzle because the more kids that eat the more reimbursement we get and we can offer better options. We want to encourage our kids to eat school lunches.”

Local foods and produce are many times more expensive, and districts may not be able to afford without a large number of students taking advantage of school lunch.

Additionally, being a full CEP district has also resulted in all MCPS families being eligible for other programs such as the P-EBT cards and discounted internet access.

Listen: MCPS School Nutrition Director Jennifer Wheeler discusses the  district's full CEP status.