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The Benefits of School Meals
young student eating a sandwich in her school cafeteria

School meals benefit students, parents and schools.

School meals are an important source of nutrition that support children’s health, development, and learning. They provide the most nutritious food consumed by children on a given day, and research has found that school meal participation is linked to improved diets, food security, and physical and mental health. School meals can also contribute to a host of positive educational outcomes, including improved attendance, behavior, and academic performance, and decreased absenteeism and tardiness.

Most schools in the U.S. participate in the federal School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program, which provide reimbursement to schools for meals served to students. Federal reimbursements, which vary according to students’ eligibility status, account for roughly two-thirds of schools’ nutrition program revenue. In 2022, the SBP provided some 2.5 billion meals to more than 15 million children who participate on an average day. The same year, NSLP provided 4.9 billion meals to more than 27 million children who participate on an average day.

Expanding access to school meals helps more students realize their nutritional and educational benefits. In addition, when school meals are free, it removes a longstanding source of stigma since access to meals is no longer linked to income, and it helps school nutrition budgets by increasing participation in breakfast and lunch programs and eliminating unpaid meal charges.

Research has found strong parental support for free school meals because they reduce household costs, save time, and reduce stress and stigma.

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Policy Options to Expand Access to Free School Meals
a young student eats breakfast in his classroom

States have numerous legislative options to expand access to free school meals, and the best approach will depend on a state’s policy goals, budget and political environment, and existing programs.

States can expand access to free school meals in several ways. First, they can expand individual eligibility for free school meals. This can be done by eliminating the reduced-price category for one or both meals, extending access to free school meals to students in households with incomes between 130% and 185% of the Federal Poverty Level instead of requiring these students to supply the $0.30 copay for breakfast or $0.40 copay for lunch. States could also increase the eligibility threshold even further (i.e. greater than 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, which is the eligibility threshold for reduced-price meals).

Second, states can support expanded access to free school meals for all students in select schools. One way is by leveraging federal funding streams, like the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows eligible schools/districts to serve school meals at no cost to students. The use of CEP has dramatically expanded since it became an option for schools in 2014, and states can use legislative and non-legislative approaches to help more schools/districts maximize federal reimbursement through CEP.

Lastly, states can take a more comprehensive approach, supporting participation in CEP and providing meals to all students at no cost to them, known as Healthy School Meals for All (HSM4A). HSM4A policies create requirements for free school meal service and provide state funding to cover the difference between federal reimbursement funding received and the federal free rate for all meals served. States can also pair HSM4A with policies that expand Breakfast After the Bell, which has been shown to further increase meal participation.

For more information about state legislative options, see this HSM4A and CEP policy menu and landscape analysis of previously introduced/enacted bills, and this list of active state legislation that expands access to free school meals.

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Current Landscape of State Legislation to Expand Access to Free Meals
trays of breakfast items ready for school breakfast service

Nearly 20 states have enacted policies that expand access to free school meals, and more are considering it.

A growing number of states have advanced policies that expand access to free school meals. Thirteen states have eliminated reduced-price copayments for breakfast, lunch, or both meals, including two states, Oregon and New Jersey, which have increased free meal eligibility to 300% and 199% of the Federal Poverty Level respectively. Six states currently provide for HSM4A by requiring and/or funding free meal service for all students, and four of these states have a CEP component in their law.

A nationwide waiver allowing free school meals to all students in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic has since ended, and schools have reverted back to pre-pandemic operations. This has prompted increased legislative activity in many states to expand access to free meals. Twelve states have active HSM4A campaigns (including states that provided for HSM4A on a one-year basis), and several others have introduced legislation to increase participation in CEP or expand individual eligibility for free meals. For more information, see this list of active state legislation that expands access to free school meals and this overview of the state HSM4A policy and advocacy landscape.

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Community Eligibility and Direct Certification
teachers read a story to her class

State legislation can help to boost direct certification rates, making the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) viable for more schools, and address concerns that CEP will negatively impact state funding allocations.

One of the common barriers to Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) participation is schools not qualifying due to low direct certification rates. Increasing the number of directly certified students allows more schools to qualify for CEP and minimizes the number of children that are required to complete applications to receive free school meals. Since 2012, numerous states have participated in demonstration projects funded by USDA to evaluate direct certification with Medicaid. California went further and passed a law in 2017 to develop and implement a process to use Medicaid participation data to directly certify qualifying children for free school meals. 

Another barrier to CEP implementation is concerns about losing access to state funding. While there are existing alternatives for allocating federal Title I education funds, many state education and other supportive funding is allocated based on free and reduced-price eligibility rates. Since CEP schools no longer collect free or reduced-price applications, concerns about losing access to this funding have deterred some schools from participating. Some states, such as Colorado, have explored other methods for determining students’ economic status. The state commissioned a study to evaluate alternative “at-risk” measures for school finance, and passed legislation in 2022 to create a working group that would help implement the new measure.