July 11, 2022

The budget reconciliation currently being negotiated in the Senate presents an important opportunity to ensure that children can access the healthy food they need at school and during the summer. There are three provisions that Congress should include in the budget reconciliation to support children, families, and schools in the upcoming 2022–2023 school year and moving forward.

  1. Allow schools to continue to offer meals to all students at no charge through the 2022–2023 school year. The recently passed Keep Kids Fed Act was an important first step. It extends USDA’s waiver authority through the summer to help avert a summer hunger cliff and provides additional support to schools and child care. However, one of the most important waivers was left out: allowing schools to offer free school meals to students. Extending this waiver would support families as they struggle with increased food and gas prices. It would support schools by reducing paperwork and increasing funding, which will help overcome the supply challenges and increased staffing costs that districts across the country face.
  2. Expand Community Eligibility. As the nation moves beyond the pandemic, community eligibility offers an important opportunity to transform school breakfast and lunch for children. Schools that adopt community eligibility offer free school breakfast and lunch to all students. This allows more children to experience the education and health benefits linked to school meals, reduces paperwork for schools and families, improves school nutrition finances, and eliminates unpaid school meal fees. Currently, too many high-need schools are not eligible even though they and their students stand to benefit from community eligibility. For schools that are eligible, the reimbursement structure can keep them from adopting community eligibility. To overcome these challenges, Congress should lower the eligibility threshold to make more schools eligible to implement community eligibility, increase the funding (raising the multiplier from 1.6 to 2.5) [1] so that more schools are able to implement community eligibility, and create a statewide community eligibility option.
  3. Create a nationwide Summer EBT Program. When schools close for the summer break, millions of families lose access to healthy free or reduced-price school meals for their children. The result is increased food insecurity among families with children, which has been happening during the pandemic and every summer. The existing summer nutrition programs are designed to replace school meals and often support much-needed summer programming. But the reach of these meals is too low. Prior to the pandemic, the Summer Nutrition Programs served just one out of seven children who count on free or reduced-price school meals during the school year. A nationwide Summer EBT program would provide families an EBT card to purchase food when schools are closed. Evaluations of Summer EBT demonstrations have found that they reduce food insecurity and improve nutrition.

[1] For community eligibility, the percentage of identified students — those who are certified for free school meals without an application, such as children whose households participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — currently is multiplied by 1.6 to determine the percentage of meals reimbursed at the free rate. For example, a school at 40% identified students would be reimbursed for 64% of the meals at the free rate and 36% of the meals at the paid rate. If the multiplier is raised to 2.5, the school would receive the free rate for all meals.