September 29, 2023
After receiving thousands of supportive comments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released their final rule, Community Eligibility Provision: Increasing Options for Schools, which provides 3,000 additional school districts the opportunity to offer nutritious meals to all students at no cost. Since its inception, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) has been instrumental in eliminating stigma, reducing burdens on families and districts, and ensuring that all students have access to free healthy school meals, no matter their families’ household income level.
The final rule, effective October 26, 2023, lowers the eligibility threshold from 40 percent to 25 percent, thus increasing millions of students’ access to nutritious school meals. Newly eligible schools that want to participate this school year (SY 2023–24) are encouraged to work with their state agency to submit a waiver to USDA.
Community eligibility has widespread support — students, families, schools, state agencies, and advocates report numerous benefits of offering all students free school meals.
- 97 percent of the comments submitted to USDA supported community eligibility expansion.
- The Community Eligibility Provision has been shown to increase participation in school meals, strengthen household food security, improve student diet quality and academic performance, and reduce income-based social stigma, thus creating a more positive academic environment for students.
- For school nutrition departments, community eligibility reduces administrative burdens, allowing for a greater investment in the operation itself. The administrative savings provide school nutrition professionals with more time to focus on breakfast expansion strategies, meal quality, and wellness initiatives reflective of their local communities.
While the lower eligibility threshold is a key step toward Healthy School Meals for All, congressional action is needed to ensure all eligible schools and districts can participate.
- The School Meals Expansion Act (H.R. 2567) increases federal funding for community eligibility schools, thus making CEP financially viable for all eligible schools.
- The No Hungry Kids in Schools Act (H.R. 3112) allows for a statewide community eligibility option, which would increase the number of eligible schools within a state, while sharing administrative and operational costs among multiple districts.
- The Expanding Access to School Meals Act (H.R. 3113) increases eligibility for free school meals to 200 percent, expands direct certification, makes eligibility retroactive to the beginning of the school year, and increases funding for community eligibility schools.
Expanding community eligibility improves the lives and well-being of millions of children; however, millions more continue to lack access to healthy school meals at no cost. It is imperative that Congress pass the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023 (H.R. 3204/S. 1568) so that all children, regardless of school or household income, can have the nutritional foundation that supports a productive and healthy life.