USDA expands school meal eligibility

More than 3000 school districts will be eligible for CEP after new changes.

Joshua Baethge, Policy editor

September 26, 2023

3 Min Read
Students eating lunch in a school cafeteria
Getty Images/Will & Deni McIntyre

USDA announced more students will have access to school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision, commonly known as CEP. That initiative allows students in poorer districts to receive free breakfasts and lunches without individually applying for federal assistance.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes the announcement comes almost one year after the Biden Administration held its White House Conference on Hunger. During that conference, the President vowed to find new pathways for students in need to receive healthy school meals.

“USDA has taken an important step toward fulfilling that promise by expanding access to CEP,” Vilsack says. “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.”

Under the previous guidelines, school districts were eligible for CEP if 40% of the student body lived in households participating in income-based federal assistance programs like SNAP or TANF. The new rule, which goes into effect on Oct. 26, lowers that threshold to 25%. USDA officials estimate that change will make an additional 3,000 school districts eligible for CEP.

While more districts will be eligible for free meals, it doesn’t necessarily mean those students will receive them. The amount of money districts are reimbursed through CEP is determined by a formula established in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Local and state education agencies that choose to participate in CEP are required to pay any additional costs over that amount.

Benefits of free school meals

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress authorized free school meals for all students regardless of income. Approximately 90% of school districts nationwide participated in the program until lawmakers ended it before the 2022-23 school year.

Eight states, including California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont, have since passed laws allowing all students to receive free school meals.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau Report, food insecurity within lower income households fell by nearly 7% between the spring of 2020, when free school meals were introduced, and the summer of 2021. Since then, the number of children dealing with food insecurity has increased to more than 9 million.

USDA officials contend freely available school meals offer multiple benefits including lowering family food costs and eliminating debt. They improve child nutrition, especially kids from families with incomes barely above the school lunch program maximums. Free meals also eliminate the stigma many students perceive when they receive need-based assistance.

Additionally, USDA officials say more students participating in school lunch programs helps generate additional revenue for schools to provide healthier meals and simplifies school nutrition staff operations.

USDA deputy under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services Stacy Dean calls healthy school meals an essential part of the school environment just like teachers, classrooms and books. She says they also set kids up for success and better health.

“More children are fueled for learning and development when they can count on tasty, nutritious meals at school,” Dean says. “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.”

About the Author(s)

Joshua Baethge

Policy editor, Farm Progress

Joshua Baethge covers a wide range of government issues affecting agriculture. Before joining Farm Progress, he spent 10 years as a news and feature reporter in Texas. During that time, he covered multiple state and local government entities, while also writing about real estate, nightlife, culture and whatever else was the news of the day.

Baethge earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas. In his free time, he enjoys going to concerts, discovering new restaurants, finding excuses to be outside and traveling as much as possible. He is based in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife and two kids.

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