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Thousands more school districts could soon provide free school meals

Nearly 3,000 school districts will soon be eligible to join a USDA program that provides free meals to students regardless of income.
Thousands more school districts could soon provide free school meals
Posted at 9:20 AM, Sep 26, 2023

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that nearly 3,000 districts in high-need areas could soon get partial reimbursement to offer students free breakfasts and lunches at schools. 

The USDA is expanding the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools and districts in low-income areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to students without collecting household applications. Currently, 40% of students within a district must be from families that qualify for various income-based federal assistance programs. 

The new rule lowers the threshold to 25%, meaning thousands of schools could potentially join the program. 

Schools have the option to join the program, and local or state funds must fill any gap between program costs and federal support, the USDA said. 

SEE MORE: No 'Ice Cream Fridays' for Ohio kids who owe lunch debt

The announcement comes as eight states (California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont) have enacted universal free school lunches. 

"Increasing access to free, healthy school breakfast and lunch will decrease childhood hunger, improve child health and student readiness, and put our nation on the path to better nutrition and wellness," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. 

The USDA says the program helps increase food security for students from households that barely miss the cutoff to be eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. Officials also say the program reduces the stigma behind being placed in school lunch programs. 

One other benefit is that it saves administrators time as it makes all students within a school eligible for free meals. 

SEE MORE: Massachusetts' new millionaire tax allows for universal school lunches

USDA leaders say ensuring kids have access to meals at school helps with learning. 

"More children are fueled for learning and development when they can count on tasty, nutritious meals at school. While there is still more work ahead to ensure every K-12 student in the nation can access healthy school meals at no cost, this is a significant step on the pathway towards that goal," said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services.

The federal free and reduced-cost lunch program is based on family income. For children to qualify for a free school lunch, their family must earn less than 130% of the federal poverty level. The family must earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level for a reduced-cost meal. 

In 2023-24, the cutoff for free school lunches for a household of four is $39,000. For reduced-cost lunches, the cutoff for a household of four is $55,500. 

As of last school year, about 9,500 districts were eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision. Of those, 68% opted into the program. About 19.9 million students in 2022-23 attended a school that adopted the program.

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