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By Acting Now, Policymakers Can Connect More Low-Income Children With School Meals

Local, state, and federal policymakers each have important opportunities in the next few weeks to enable more children in low-income families to get enough to eat, thereby improving their health and educational prospects, by expanding an option in the National School Lunch Program known as “community eligibility.” But time is of the essence. The deadline for the initial local and state opportunities is September 30, and Congress is finalizing its economic recovery package, which could increase federal reimbursements to help more schools adopt the option.

The start of this school year marks ten years since schools serving large numbers of children with low income could offer meals at no charge to all students thanks to community eligibility. First implemented by schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan in 2011, community eligibility has transformed how children in low-income areas receive meals at school. Qualifying schools can offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students without having to collect and process school meal applications, which increases participation while reducing paperwork for parents and administrative work for schools.

The option is only available to schools with large shares of students from low-income families. For a school (or group of schools) to qualify, 40 percent or more of its students must qualify for free school meals automatically, usually because their household receives SNAP (formerly food stamps) or Medicaid benefits. Many other children in these schools are approved for free or reduced-price meals based on an application; few are much above the income limit for reduced-price meals.

For the 2019-20 school year, nearly 15 million children in more than 30,000 schools and more than 5,000 school districts received free meals through community eligibility — representing more than 1 in 4 elementary and secondary students nationwide.

A growing body of research shows that community eligibility may contribute to a range of positive outcomes for students, including better academic performance, lower student suspension rates, and more students with a healthy body mass index. But more than 30 percent of eligible schools haven’t adopted community eligibility, primarily because their federal reimbursement (which is based on the share of their students who qualify for free meals automatically) wouldn’t cover enough of their costs.

Here are the opportunities right now for policymakers to expand community eligibility.

  • School districts serving large numbers of low-income students can adopt community eligibility to offer school meals at no charge to all students for the next four years. Over the last year, many more schools have become eligible for community eligibility, or eligible for higher federal reimbursements under it, because more children are participating in SNAP. But some school districts haven’t applied for community eligibility because COVID-19-related waivers have allowed schools to offer meals at no charge to all students for the last school year and the current one. Those waivers, however, expire at the end of June 2022.

    School districts can lock in higher reimbursement rates for continuing to offer free meals to all students over the next four years by applying for community eligibility before the September 30, 2021 deadline.

    Alternatively, school districts could apply for the next school year by June 30 of each year, but applying now avoids the possibility that a district’s reimbursement would shrink in future years as the economy recovers and SNAP participation declines.

  • Officials in 35 states can apply to begin or expand use of Medicaid data to automatically enroll more eligible children for free or reduced-price school meals. In schools not participating in community eligibility, eligible children have to submit an application, with the same information they might already have provided to another program. Some children miss out on free or reduced-price school meals because their families don’t know they can apply or don’t understand the application. School districts are required to use SNAP data to enroll children in low-income families for free school meals automatically using a data-matching process known as “direct certification.” Since 2012, selected states have been using Medicaid data for direct certification under an Agriculture Department (USDA) demonstration project, and USDA recently announced that the rest of the states can apply to join.

    Using Medicaid data for direct certification helps schools automatically enroll more of their low-income students. This makes more schools eligible for community eligibility and increases reimbursements for schools that are already eligible. It also helps connect children in low-income families with free or reduced-price meals even if their school doesn’t qualify for community eligibility. States can apply by September 30, 2021 to join the demonstration for the 2022-23 school year and can apply within the following year for the 2023-24 school year.

  • Through the Build Back Better Act they’re now developing, federal policymakers can increase reimbursements under community eligibility so more schools serving low-income areas can offer meals at no charge to all students. Under community eligibility, school districts must cover any costs that exceed the federal reimbursement. Because the reimbursement sometimes falls short of covering a school’s full meal costs, many eligible schools choose not to participate — more than 3,700 eligible districts and more than 13,700 eligible schools in the 2019-20 school year. President Biden, in his American Families Plan, proposed increasing the reimbursement formula, which would enable a much wider group of schools to offer meals at no charge to all students when the COVID-19-related waivers expire. The budget resolution adopted by the House and Senate in August includes funding that could support such an increase. Policymakers can include the reimbursement increase in the economic recovery legislation they are crafting.

By taking advantage of these three opportunities, policymakers can reduce children’s food hardship, improve their educational prospects, and help them lead healthier, more productive lives.