USDA proposes lower threshold for schools, districts to qualify for free meals

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Dive Brief:

  • To improve the reach of free school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Thursday proposed a rule to expand access to the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high-poverty schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students without requiring families to file an application. 
  • The proposed change would lower the minimum threshold of the “Identified Student Percentage” from 40% to 25% for a school or district to qualify for CEP. That percentage is calculated by dividing the number of students eligible for free meals by the total student enrollment. 
  • The USDA will open a 45-day public comment period on the proposed CEP rule beginning Thursday. 

Dive Insight:

The USDA’s proposal to expand CEP is a step toward advancing free school meals for all students, the agency said in a statement. The move comes after President Joe Biden pledged in September to expand access to free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032 as a part of a long-term goal to ultimately serve free school meals to all students nationwide. 

Meanwhile, states are taking universal school meal policies into their own hands, implementing laws that provide free meals to all on a statewide basis following the June expiration of a pandemic-era congressional waiver that permitted free meals for all students nationwide. 

“Many schools and even some entire states have successfully provided free meals to all their students,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a statement. “We applaud their leadership in nourishing children and hope this proposed change will make it possible for more schools and states to follow suit.”

During the 2021-22 school year, one in three schools participated in CEP, according to the Food & Research Action Center. More than half of schools nationwide are already eligible for CEP under the current standard, Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC, previously told K-12 Dive.

Between 2014 and 2021, the number of schools adopting CEP rose from 14,184 to 33,300 schools, FRAC has reported. 

For Marie Johnson, a student nutrition program coordinator at Farmington Municipal School District 5 in New Mexico, the USDA’s proposal is a great beginning and a first step toward a national universal school meal policy. 

Even so, barriers to CEP remain, said Johnson, who is also president of the New Mexico School Nutrition Association. Some districts still won’t adopt CEP even if they’re eligible, because they don’t have the time, knowledge or patience to apply for and implement the provision in their communities. 

“Some districts, they just don’t do it. They won’t do it, and that means kids suffer,” Johnson said. “Some food service directors feel like if they reach out for help, that’s a red flag for state agencies … so they won’t ask for the help.”

Researchers, meanwhile, have reported various benefits from the now-expired pandemic-era waivers.  

During the 2021-22 school year, the number of children eating school meals jumped by 1.6 million breakfasts and 10.1 million lunches when compared to the previous school year, which a FRAC report partially attributed to the pandemic-era waivers. Additionally, USDA data reveals food insecurity dipped by 2.3 percentage points among U.S. households with children between 2020 and 2021. 

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