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New State and Federal Policies Expand Access to Free School Meals

Over the past academic year, regular service of federal school breakfast and lunch programs resumed for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

By Emily Katz and Hayleigh Rockenback  |  July 27, 2023

As the federal school meal program gets back on track, states and the federal government are proposing significant new policies that will shape the program’s future.

Over the past academic year, regular service of federal school breakfast and lunch programs resumed for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. During the pandemic, the Department of Agriculture was authorized to grant a variety of waivers that gave schools more flexibility around food service operations and additional funding. The flexibilities and funding effectively allowed schools to provide free meals to all students.

This year, schools continued to face high food costs and staffing challenges that were widespread during the pandemic. Additionally, the return to regular meal service resurfaced the issue of school meal debt.

This year, schools continued to face high food costs and staffing challenges that were widespread during the pandemic.

States Expanding Access to Free School Meals

Over the last two legislative sessions, more states have expanded coverage of free school meals through a variety of methods.

As of September, eight states—California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont—have passed legislation establishing optional or mandatory universal school meal programs for schools participating in the national school lunch and breakfast programs. Six of these states with statewide universal meal programs mandate district participation, while the programs in Colorado and Michigan are optional. Six states pay for their programs through general revenue fund or education fund appropriations, the exceptions being Colorado and Massachusetts. Colorado directly funds universal meals through a new voter-passed tax measure that reduces income tax deductions available to households earning $300,000 or more. Massachusetts funds its program using a portion of the revenue generated from the state’s new voter-approved 4% tax on incomes over $1 million. Additionally, Nevada is providing free school meals for all students through the 2023-34 school year.

Some states have made only school breakfasts free for all students, either permanently or temporarily. The District of Columbia has required free school breakfasts since 2010, and Connecticut and Pennsylvania will have free breakfasts for all students during the 2023-24 school year.

However, universal school meals are not the only avenue in which states are expanding access to free meals. Nine states and D.C. have made previously reduced-price meals free for students. Of these, five states—Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington—and D.C. have enacted legislation permanently requiring that reduced-price meals be provided for free. The other four states—North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania—have done so temporarily. Washington also enacted legislation mandating permanent free meals for students in kindergarten through fourth grade at schools with at least 30% of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Some states that have temporarily expanded free school meals have done so with funding from the American Rescue Plan, while others have appropriated general funds to cover the costs.

Proposed Changes to Federal School Meals Programs

Over the last few months, a series of federal actions impacting school meal programs and summer food programs have been included in proposed regulations and congressional legislation.

Nutrition Standards

In February, the USDA released a proposed rule for the first major update to school nutrition standards in over a decade. Federal law requires the department to update school nutrition standards based on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The current standards were adopted in 2012 and align with the 2010 guidelines; the proposed standards align with the 2020 guidelines.

The proposed regulation would include new standards on added sugars, reduce sodium limits and strengthen the “Buy American” provision in the school meal programs. The regulation also proposes options for long-term milk and whole grain standards. The USDA expects to release a final rule in time for schools to plan for the 2024-25 school year, though requirements would be phased in over several school years.

Community Eligibility Provision

The USDA released a proposed rule in March to increase the number of schools eligible for schoolwide free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, which allows schools and districts with substantial percentages of low-income students to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students. Schools and districts can opt in to the program if they meet eligibility requirements.

Currently, schools and districts with at least 40% of students who qualify for free lunch are eligible for the provision. The new regulation would lower the threshold to 25%, making more schools and districts eligible. A USDA study of CEP implementation found that, in addition to increasing access to free school meals, benefits for schools and districts included lower administrative burdens and higher levels of federal reimbursements for meals served to students. In fact, at least nine states with permanently expanded school meal programs require eligible schools to opt in to CEP to participate in the state’s program.

NCSL strongly supports CEP and commented favorably on the proposed regulation.

Summer Food Options

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 included two provisions to expand children’s access to food while school is out of session for the summer.

Starting in summer 2023, the Summer Food Service Program and the National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option will be allowed to provide meals to rural low-income children in non-congregate settings, which means students won’t have to travel to a single location to receive free meals. This option will operate in addition to the existing program structure in which meals are provided at sites run by sponsor organizations.

Starting in summer 2024, the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer, or Summer EBT program—which helps low-income families buy food during the summer months in lieu of students receiving free or reduced-price meals during the school year—will be available nationwide for the first time. Before the pandemic, a USDA evaluation found that a Summer EBT pilot program in select states resulted in positive impacts on food security and child nutritional outcomes.

The USDA is expected to release proposed rules for both programs by December.

Additional Federal Funding

The USDA will provide $1.3 billion to states and territories through the Supply Chain Assistance Funding for Schools program to buy foods to be distributed to schools. The funds are intended to help school meal programs deal with the continued high costs of food and labor going into the 2023-24 school year.

Emily Katz is a legislative specialist in NCSL’s Federal Affairs Division; Hayleigh Rockenback is the Bill Emerson Hunger Fellow in NCSL’s Children and Families Program.

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