The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to release final rules in April 2024 on two important school meal proposals, one to expand free meals served to all students at high-poverty schools and the other to heighten nutrition guidance.
The first change, initially proposed in March, would expand access to the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with high concentrations of low-income families to serve free breakfast and lunch without requiring an application for the benefit. USDA’s proposal aims to lower the minimum threshold for a school or district’s CEP eligibility from 40% of enrolled students to 25%.
The 45-day comment period on the CEP expansion closed in May.
An expanded CEP has also been viewed as a pathway to bring back the pandemic-era waivers that allowed universal free school meals nationwide. In fact, the number of schools and districts participating in CEP jumped 21% for the 2022-23 school year following the June 2022 expiration of that waiver.
USDA’s February proposed rule to gradually implement more stringent school nutrition standards received a flood of public comments — over 136,000. The proposal would revise standards on whole grains, sugar and sodium, requiring schools to offer primarily whole grain products starting in fall 2024 and incrementally minimize sugar and sodium content through 2029.
Public reaction to the proposal has been split between those who say the move would make meals healthier and those who say it is unrealistic and would deter student participation in school meal programs. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., wrote in May that the USDA needs to pay more attention to the voices of school nutrition experts when issuing this final rule.
The extended public comment period on the proposed rules ended in May.