October 26, 2023

Interpretive Summary: USDA expands school meal eligibility

USDA expands school meal eligibility  

By: Sydney Sheffield 

More students will have access to school meals due to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) recent announcement that expands the availability of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program. The announcement means that an estimated 3,000 more school districts in high-need areas will now have the option to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost. 

The CEP program is a meal service option that allows schools to provide meals at no cost to all students without requiring families to apply for free and reduced-price meals. School districts receive federal funding based on a formula using existing data from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other programs, and local or state funds must fill any gap between program costs and federal support. 

“Today’s announcement comes as we approach the one-year anniversary of the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, where the Biden-Harris Administration promised to advance a pathway to healthy school meals for all students,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “USDA has taken an important step toward fulfilling that promise by expanding access to CEP. 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.”

Before this announcement, at least 40% of students had to live in households participating in certain income-based federal assistance programs, for a school, group of schools, or school district to be eligible for the CEP program. This announcement lowers the threshold from 40% to 25%. While this change in CEP applies across the country, it will be particularly impactful in states and school districts that commit to supporting healthy school meals for all students with their own funds. 

“Healthy school meals are an essential part of the school environment — just like teachers, classrooms, and books – and set kids up for success and better health,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “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.”

 In addition to allowing eligible schools to participate in the CEP program, 8 states have gone a step further and passed state legislation that allows schools to serve school meals to all their students at no cost. These states include California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont. 

To support the expanded access, the USDA is also offering financial support for schools, by giving the schools: 

  • 50 cents more per lunch and 18 cents more per breakfast for the 2023-2024 school year, compared to last school year’s base reimbursement rates, through annual inflation adjustments and Supply Chain Assistance 
  • $30 million in Healthy Meals Incentives grants to 264 small and rural school districts nationwide
  • $30 million in Equipment Grants for states and school districts operating school lunch programs
  • Nearly $11 million in Farm to School Grants, serving 1.2 million children

Read the final rule that expanded the CEP program here