About 3,000 more school districts will be eligible to serve free breakfasts and lunches to all students under an expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision in a final rule announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The final rule, which is to take effect Oct. 26, amends the Community Eligibility Provision’s minimum threshold for low-income schools and districts. The federal reimbursement program allows all students in a district to receive free meals without requiring families to fill out applications.
Specifically, the final rule lowers the minimum “identified student percentage” — or the percentage of students enrolled who are certified as eligible for free school meals — from 40% to 25%.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement called the final rule “an important step” toward achieving President Joe Biden’s commitment to create a pathway for 9 million more students to receive free school meals by 2032.
“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,” Vilsack said.
More schools have adopted the Community Eligibility Provision since the June 2022 expiration of a pandemic-era waiver that allowed students in schools nationwide to receive free meals regardless of their family's income.
In fact, the number of schools and districts participating in the program rose 21% during the 2022-23 school year, according to a report from the Food Research & Action Center. The report found 6,935 additional schools adopted CEP that school year, bringing the number of enrolled schools to 40,235.
Meanwhile, as more high-poverty schools across the country become eligible for free school meals for all students, more states have taken action to create their own universal school meal policies. Currently, seven states have passed legislation permanently establishing such programs, including California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont and, most recently, Illinois. Michigan included universal school meals for the 2023-24 school year in its state budget and lawmakers have introduced a bill in the state legislature to make it a permanent policy, according to Food Service Director.
The USDA noted that states with universal school meal policies can take advantage of the final rule on the Community Eligibility Provision, allowing them to “experience more efficient, streamlined school meal operations as well as predictable federal funding levels.