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In midst of high poverty, homelessness, North Monterey County students get free meals

In midst of high poverty, homelessness, North Monterey County students get free meals

All public school students in North Monterey County have free school meals for another school year, intended to help a region that is experiencing high levels of youth homelessness and family poverty.

North Monterey County Unified School District schools serve breakfast and lunch daily at no cost under the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal program directed toward schools with high populations of lower income students. 

"Not only is this helpful to our families, but research shows that eating nutrition meals supports the development of children and teenagers which positively impacts their ability to learn, which is our ultimate goal," Superintendent Kari Yeater said in a statement.

The district had free meals last year, making this school year the second of four years for the renewable program available to over 4,500 students regardless of income, without application. Students also could get free meals over the summer.

When CEP was first implemented, the district saw increases in meals served by over 38,650 total breakfasts and lunches, according to Sarah Doherty, child nutrition director for North Monterey County Unified.

On average, more than two in three students received lunch at a district school last year.

A 2018 University of California Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment working paper found access to free meals in the CEP program resulted in large increases in school breakfast and lunch participation.

Districts with the largest gains in meal participation also saw slightly improved academic performance in math, the UC Berkeley paper found.  Hispanic and white students — both of whom are less likely to participate in free meal programs — also tended to perform better with access to free meals. 

Nearly all Salinas school districts, along with districts in Greenfield, King City and Soledad, already get free meals through CEP.

To qualify, schools or districts need at least 40% of students identified as coming from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

This can include students already eligible for free or reduced-price meals — based on household income or by receiving certain public benefits programs — or those identified as homeless, foster or migrant. Parent education level also determines designation.

The district also has one of the county's highest numbers of students federally qualified as homeless; Monterey County has one of the state's highest populations of homeless students.

All Monterey County school districts using CEP had at least 85% Latino student enrollment, and 85% of their student bodies qualifying as socioeconomically disadvantaged, per state education figures, higher than the rest of California.

Previously, under a separate federal provision, only Castroville Elementary School students had free meals while other North Monterey County Unified schools used applications.

Now, district students can get free meals at Castroville, Elkhorn, Echo Valley and Prunedale elementary schools, as well as North Monterey County Middle School, North Monterey County High School and Central Bay High School.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the national nonprofit School Nutrition Association, said CEP also ensures families eligible for free meals get access without having to navigate complicated applications or language barriers. It also removes stigma for lower income students who may rely on this added nutrition.

Governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program requires certain nutrition guidelines like more access to fruits and vegetables, calorie limits, and options for whole grain and low-fat milk.

While free lunch and breakfast services have been provided to students for decades, the CEP program was made possible through the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It was available nationwide by July 2014.
Contact reporter Eduardo Cuevas at or 831-269-9363.