In an ambitious move to address childhood hunger, a problem impacting one in seven Kentucky youths, state Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong and state Representative Chad Aull announced a bill to expand access to free meals at schools through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program.
The announcement was made at Franklin County Schools’ Peaks Mill Elementary, a school that has benefited from CEP for years. The bill, to be considered by the General Assembly early next year, aims to strengthen the program and provide more students with access to healthy meals.
“For many students, school breakfasts and lunches are not just the best meals of the day; they’re often the only ones,” stated Sen. Chambers Armstrong, D-Louisville. “The bill that Rep. Aull and I are announcing today would help a lot of families have one less thing to worry about.”
Rep. Aull of Lexington highlighted Kentucky’s leadership in school nutrition, being among the first 10 states to adopt CEP in 2010, currently benefiting hundreds of thousands of students daily.
“Our goal is to have fewer students impacted by hunger, help the local school districts and increase their connection with our agricultural communities,” said Rep. Aull. “This is a win for our kids, for our schools, and for our farmers.”
The legislation calls for public schools with at least 60% of students meeting CEP’s income-eligibility requirements to participate by the 2025-26 school year. Schools with income eligibility between 40 and 60 percent but not enrolled would be required to document reasons why, to identify what support they need to participate.
The Kentucky Department of Education notes that most eligible schools already comply with these requirements. However, the bill would allow an additional 20,000 students to benefit from CEP, adding to the over 550,000 students fed through CEP-affiliated schools this year.
Further, the bill proposes up to $16.9 million in state funding annually to closely match the federal compensating rate for each CEP-eligible meal, a measure to decrease local taxpayer costs.
Research cited by lawmakers, including a study by the Kentucky School Nutrition Association, has demonstrated that access to healthy meals brings clear academic benefits. Students who ate breakfast experienced an almost 18 percent increase in math scores and 1.5 days more attendance over the school year.
The legislators emphasized the value of the investment, referring to pandemic-related programs that eased school-meal requirements.
“CEP gives us a permanent way to keep that going for families in need, which I think is critical,” Sen. Chambers Armstrong said.
Rep. Aull expressed hope for bipartisan support, emphasizing the importance of ensuring that the youngest generation has access to nutritional food.
“We all have a vested interest in making sure our youngest generation has access to nutritional food, and we definitely have the needed funding in our considerable ‘Rainy Day’ account. There is no doubt that the return on this investment would be huge,” Rep. Aull said.
With this proposed legislation, Kentucky’s lawmakers are taking a significant step toward combating childhood hunger and nourishing the minds and bodies of the state’s youth.
Cross-posted from the Lexington Times.