School & District Management

A New Federal Plan Could Make Free School Meals a Reality for More Students

By Arianna Prothero — March 22, 2023 5 min read
Young boy in a school lunchroom cafeteria line and choosing a slice of pizza to put on his tray which includes an apple.
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The Biden administration is proposing a plan that it says will make it easier for some school districts to serve free school meals to millions more students.

The new plan would amend the community eligibility provision in the federal school meals program, which already helps districts and schools reduce administrative costs and removes barriers to student participation. It allows districts or schools that serve large numbers of students in poverty to provide universal free meals without requiring individual families to provide additional income verification.

Instead of individual applications for the federal free- and reduced-priced lunch program, districts can rely on other federal assistance programs, such as SNAP or TANF, to calculate how many of their families are eligible. Currently, if at least 40 percent of families are identified as using SNAP or other social safety net programs, a school district can use the community eligibility provision to provide—mostly out of the district’s pocket—free meals to all students with a lot less paperwork.

The new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture would lower the threshold for eligibility from 40 percent of their students participating in a federal assistance program to 25 percent.

“This compliments the presidents’ FY24 budget, which is before Congress, in which we’re proposing additional resources to be able to expand financial assistance to these schools that are involved in community eligibility,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack in a press call with reporters announcing the proposed rule change. “And we believe that the resources that the president has requested in this FY 24 budget would potentially expand universal free meals to 9 million more children.”

Districts might not opt in

But making more districts and schools eligible for the program doesn’t necessarily mean they will opt into it if the federal government isn’t picking up a larger share of the tab for those additional school meals, said Tara Thomas, a policy analyst for AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Where the proposed rule change will likely have the biggest impact, she said, are in a handful of states that have recently passed laws making school meals universally free to all students: California, Colorado, Maine, and, the most recent entrant to the club, Minnesota.

“Because that’s the model that states are doing: If you can participate in [community eligibility provision], participate in CEP and get the max amount of federal funds available, and then the state covers the other costs,” Thomas said. “This means that more districts in those states especially are going to participate because they’re not worrying about those additional costs, because the states are paying for it.”

The rule change might also provide an incentive for other states to pass universal school meal laws, she said.

The federal government had been paying for all students to eat school breakfast and lunches for free as part of a pandemic-era program.

But it announced last summer that it was ending the initiative and would not be subsidizing school meals for all students for the 2022-23 school year. As a result, school meal debt has soared in districts across the country. Parents are confused or unaware about their responsibility for paying for school meals and districts have struggled to get eligible families signed up for free- and reduced-priced lunches.

“The reality of the pandemic-era waivers for those of us operating in these programs is that it allowed us to what we’ve been doing all along, and that is providing meals for our students daily. The difference is that our families were not accruing substantial amounts of meal debt during the operations of those waivers,” said Danielle Bock, the nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans School District #6 in Colorado, in the USDA media call.

What states are doing to support school meals

But the end of federal funding for universal school meals has kicked off a wave of legislation at the state level.

There are proposals in many state legislatures this year to provide free school meals to all students regardless of income, including Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, and Rhode Island. Connecticut had opted to cover meals for all students this school year when the federal government announced it would stop paying for meals and a bill in the legislature would make that policy permanent. A bill in North Dakota would fund a universal school meal program through 2024. And governors in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin are pushing to include funding for universal free meals in their states’ budgets.

Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have committed to paying for all students’ school meals through this school year.

“We’re seeing a trend in school districts and in states across the country taking a look and understanding the importance of the meal as part of the school day and the role that it plays in making sure students are prepared to learn at the highest level,” said Vilsack.

The USDA did not give an estimate of how many districts might opt into the community eligibility provision, how many students those changes might affect, or how much the eligibility change might cost the federal government.

Ultimately, whether more districts and schools opt into the community eligibility provision with this rule change comes down to the math for each individual district, said Thomas of AASA. The calculations to determine if opting into the community eligibility program is worthwhile is very school- and district-specific, said Thomas. And for many districts, the math just won’t work out.

“Because at the end of the day it still probably won’t be financially feasible for a lot of districts to opt in, but that’s not necessarily [USDA’s] fault,” because, she said, only Congress can change how the USDA reimburses schools for the meals they serve to students.

The USDA also announced a series of new grants that districts and schools can apply for to improve school nutrition through partnerships between schools, food producers, and suppliers.

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