School Meal Eligibility

All public and nonprofit private schools (regardless of tuition) and all residential child care institutions (RCCIs) can participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. School boards must apply to their state child nutrition agency in order to institute a program. All students in these schools may participate in the programs, but must meet certain criteria to qualify for free meals, reduced price meals (the maximum price to the student’s family is 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch), or “paid” meals, for which students pay most of the cost (the federal government pays a modest amount for administrative costs).  The basis of eligibility for free and reduced-price meals can be determined one of four ways:

Categorical Eligibility

“Categorical eligibility” means that all children who fall in that category may receive free school meals. A child is categorically eligible for free school meals who is in foster care, Head Start, homeless, migrant or living in a household receiving SNAP, FDPIR and/or TANF benefits.  These children can all be certified for free meals without a paper application through a data exchange between the corresponding authority and the school district, known as direct certification.

If direct certification does not occur, the household must submit a School Meals application.  For children receiving SNAP, TANF or FDPIR, the household need only complete the following parts of the application:

  • the child’s name,
  • a SNAP, FDPIR and/or TANF case number for the child,
  • the signature of an adult household member – the adult’s Social Security number is NOT required.

Requests on the application for ANY other information are strictly optional.

Direct Certification

All school districts nationwide are required to directly certify children living in households that receive SNAP/Food Stamp benefits for free school meals. States and school districts should also work with other agencies, such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) office to certify without paper application other categorically eligible children. Children who are categorically eligible and may be directly certified include children in foster care, Head Start, homeless, migrant or living in households receiving SNAP/Food Stamp, FDPIR or TANF benefits may be directly certified.

Community Eligibility

Community eligibility is the newest option for allowing schools with high percentages of low-income children to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without collecting school meal applications. Schools can use this option if they have 40 percent or more students directly certified for free meals. The option has been available in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan since the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Washington D.C., New York, Ohio and West Virginia will begin offering the option to school districts in the 2012-2013 school year, and an additional four states will be added in the 2013-2014 school year.  Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, all schools nationwide that meet the 40 percent direct certification threshold will be eligible to participate in this option.

Learn more about community eligibility and how you can implement this new option in your state.

Income-Based Eligibility

When a child is not categorically eligible, the child may qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on household income. These households must fill out the complete school meal application:

  • The names of all household members
  • The amount and source of income each member received in the previous month
  • The signature of an adult household member
  • The last 4 digits of the social security number of the adult household member who signs the application, OR, if the adult does not have a social security number, s/he must write “NONE” in that space or check the box reading “I do not have a social security number” if provided.  It cannot be left blank.

Requests on the application for ANY other information are strictly optional.

The child’s school then compares the household size and total income to the Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines, which determine who is eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.