USDA expands access to school breakfast, lunch for more students

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is giving an estimated 3,000 more school districts in high-need areas the option to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost, by expanding the availability of the Community Eligibility Provision, commonly known as CEP.

“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 Agriculture 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.”

CEP is a simplified 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. Instead, school districts receive federal funding based on a formula using existing data from SNAP and other programs, and local or state funds must fill any gap between program costs and federal support. Before this final rule, at least 40 percent of students had to live in households participating in certain income-based federal assistance programs, in order for a school, group of schools, or school district to be eligible for CEP. This final rule lowers that threshold from 40 percent to 25 percent.

While this change in CEP applies across the country, it will be particularly impactful in states and school districts which commit to supporting healthy school meals for all students with their own funds.

Eight states have taken additional permanent actions to make sure hunger is not a barrier to children’s success, in addition to allowing eligible schools to participate in CEP. California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont passed state laws allowing their schools to serve healthy school meals to all their students at no cost. In these states, schools that previously were not eligible for CEP can now take advantage of this final rule to experience more efficient, streamlined school meal operations as well as predictable federal funding levels.

CEP – and all models for providing healthy school meals for all at no cost – is a win-win for schools, kids, families and communities and provides many benefits, including

  • Lowering food costs for families;
  • Increasing food and nutrition security, especially for students from households that barely miss the cutoff to be eligible for free and reduced-price school meals;
  • Eliminating school meal debt;
  • Reducing social stigma for students who eat free or reduced-price meals, while other students pay full price;
  • Increasing student participation in school breakfast and lunch programs, which increases revenues and helps schools offer healthier meals; and
  • Saving time by simplifying program operations for hardworking school nutrition staff.

“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 under-secretary 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.”

USDA is also supporting expanded access to healthy school meals by offering extensive financial support for schools, including providing

USDA also continues to expand its Direct Certification for Medicaid Demonstration Projects, which ensure that eligible children in households receiving Medicaid benefits automatically receive free or reduced price school meals without their families filling out an application. The demonstration projects have been implemented in 38 states, and USDA continues to invite more states to participate. In school year 2019-2020, 1.4 million students received free and reduced-price school meals thanks to direct certification through Medicaid.

Related Resources
Webpage: Community Eligibility Provision
Webpage: USDA School Meals
Webpage: USDA Support for Schools

FNS works to end hunger and improve food and nutrition security through a suite of 16 nutrition assistance programs, such as the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs, the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Together, these programs serve 1 in 4 Americans over the course of a year, promoting consistent and equitable access to healthy, safe, and affordable food essential to optimal health and well-being. FNS also provides science-based nutrition recommendations through the co-development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. FNS’s report, “Leveraging the White House Conference to Promote and Elevate Nutrition Security: The Role of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service,” released in conjunction with the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September 2022, highlights ways the agency will support the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Strategy.

To learn more about FNS, visit www.fns.usda.gov and follow @USDANutrition.