WASHINGTON, June 16, 2022 — The Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC) Community Eligibility: The Key to Hunger-Free Schools, School Year 2021–2022 report released today found that 33,000 schools nationwide adopted the provision which allows high-need schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, during the 2021-2022 school year.
While the number of schools adopting community eligibility remained high, the vast majority of community eligibility schools actually operated under the Seamless Summer Option waiver that was made available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) child nutrition waiver authority.
This waiver, which according to a USDA study was used by 90 percent of school nutrition departments this school year, allowed schools to offer meals to all students at no charge and provided a higher reimbursement rate for each meal served. Without Congressional action, the Seamless Summer Option waiver, along with the other child nutrition waivers that USDA has issued to support access to meals and school nutrition operations, are set to expire on June 30.
“We continue to call on Congress to act immediately to extend USDA authority to issue child nutrition waivers beyond June 30 to give all children access to the school breakfasts and lunches they need to grow and thrive and to support schools as they face unprecedented supply chain disruptions and increased staffing costs,” said Luis Guardia, president of FRAC. “If Congress fails to act and the waivers are not available for the 2022-2023 school year, community eligibility can help mitigate the impact of the loss of the waivers at least for high-need schools.”
Community eligibility increases participation in school meals, giving all students within the school the opportunity to experience the educational and health benefits linked to eating school meals, and supports school nutrition operations by reducing administrative costs and eliminating unpaid school meal fees. But only schools with 40 percent or more students who are certified eligible for free school meals without a household application can participate in community eligibility. For most schools, this works out to about two-thirds of the students being eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
The report reveals adoption of community eligibility remains strong, with 16.2 million students now attending schools that have adopted community eligibility. Schools that participate in community eligibility often see increased participation in school meals, decreased stigma around school meal participation, a reduction in administrative burdens and costs to schools, and bolstered school nutrition finances.
Several states saw increases in community eligibility participation during the 2021–2022 school year, according to the report, which analyzed data for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Virginia had the largest growth in the number of schools adopting CEP, increasing by 226 schools. Illinois and Washington followed in school adoption growth by 130 and 88 schools, respectively. Nationally, 74.3 percent of eligible schools participate in community eligibility.
FRAC suggests additional investments are needed to increase the number of schools that can adopt community eligibility to ensure children can access the healthy school meals they need. This can be accomplished in a budget reconciliation package, child nutrition reauthorization, or another upcoming legislative vehicle.
The report recommends increasing the number of schools that are able to adopt community eligibility by making more schools eligible; making it more financially viable by increasing the multiplier that determines the amount of federal reimbursement a school receives from 1.6 to 2.5; and giving states the option to implement the Community Eligibility Provision statewide — as proposed in H.R. 5376 — to allow all schools in the state to offer school breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge.
The Food Research & Action Center improves the nutrition, health, and well-being of people struggling against poverty-related hunger in the United States through advocacy, partnerships, and by advancing bold and equitable policy solutions. To learn more, visit FRAC.org and follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.