School Meal Policy
School meals help millions of children from low-income families get the nutrition they need to learn and grow. This section covers how the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program work, why they're so important, and how they can be improved to reach more students through policy changes at both the federal and state level.
A designated agency -- typically state department of education -- administers the programs within each state.
State legislatures may also pass laws that complement or extend the federal laws and regulations.
School Food Authorities (SFAs) administer the programs within school districts. SFA is typically synonymous with the district's school nutrition department. The school nutrition department applies to the state agency to operate the programs and submits claims for reimbursement based on the number of meals served to eligible students.
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.
Expanding the Community Eligibility Provision
At the national level, access to nutritious school meals could be improved by expanding the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal reimbursement option for eligible schools participating in NSLP and SBP that allows them to serve meals to all students at no cost. The school receives meal reimbursement funding according to a formula based on the number of students identified through other data sources as being eligible for free or reduced-price meals. This reduces the administrative burden on schools, which no longer have to collect eligibility applications and fees, and provides a range of well-documented benefits to students.
Improving the funding formula and lowering the eligibility threshold could make CEP available and financially sustainable for more schools.
For more background on how CEP works, see our CEP webpage. Our state school meals policy section also includes information on how states can incentivize CEP adoption or leverage CEP as part of healthy school meals for all legislation.
Improving Direct Certification
Direct certification is a method of determining student eligibility for free or reduced-price meals through data matching with other means-tested programs like SNAP and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). In addition to conferring individual eligibility for students identified through data matching, direct certification rates are a key component of determining a school's eligibility to adopt CEP.
Currently, direct certification using Medicaid data is a pilot option. While many states have applied and been approved to participate in this pilot, it is not a permanent, nationwide option. Making direct certification with Medicaid data available on a permanent, nationwide basis would further expand student eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals and increase CEP adoption. Use of Medicaid data is especially important since it is the only direct certification option that captures students eligible for reduced-price meals; other programs used for direct certification have eligibility thesholds low enough to only capture students eligible for free meals.
Direct certification could be further improved by including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) data as an option to confer eligibility.
Most legislative changes to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP) and other child nutrition programs administered by schools are made through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) process. For more information on how the CNR process works and its current status, please see the CNR section within the Federal Policy & Advocacy webpage.
Congress may pass laws affecting the school meal programs outside of the CNR process if needed, though. For example, emergency COVID-19 relief legislation included numerous measures relating to the school meals programs. In June 2022, Congress passed a piece of standalone legislation, the Keep Kids Fed Act, to temporarily extend USDA's authority to issue COVID-19 waivers and provide a one-year increase to school, afterschool, and child care meal reimbursement rates.
Additionally, Congress may include policy changes within appropriations bills. These appropriations bills also include funding for related programs that do not have permanent authorization or funding, such as school kitchen equipment grants.
States can expand access to free school meals in several ways.
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).
Increase schools offering no-cost meals
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.
Provide Healthy School Meals for All
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.
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. Nine states currently provide for HSM4A by requiring and/or funding free meal service for all students, and seven 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 about state legislative options, see this policy options resources on expanding individual eligibility for no cost school meals, 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 no cost school meals.
One of the common barriers to CEP adoption is low direct certification rates, which leads to schools not qualifying or feeling that CEP is not financially sustainable. Increasing the number of directly certified students allows more schools to qualify for CEP. Even for schools that remain ineligible or unable to adopt CEP, improving direct certification minimizes the number of children that are required to complete applications to receive free or reduced-price 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.
States may also pass laws and/or provide funding to improve the technology and data systems needed to simplify and enhance the data matching required for direct certification.
Beyond policies that expand access to school meals broadly, states and school districts have worked to expand access to breakfast specifically through the following types of policy changes:
- Requiring Breakfast After the Bell models, such as Breakfast in the Classroom
- Offering funding for start-up/expansion costs related to changing breakfast models
- Providing an additional per-breakfast reimbursement
- Requiring schools to offer breakfast
- Ensuring that time spent on Breakfast in the Classroom counts as instructional time
A barrier to CEP implementation for individual schools, as well as a potential barrier to a statewide CEP incentive or Healthy School Meals for All legislation is concerns about losing access to state education 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.