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Federal bills look to expand universal free school meal access

Also in this week’s K-12 Legislative Update: Delaware lawmakers advance a bill that would cover reduced-price school meals for students.
Students grabbing fruit in the cafeteria
The School Hunger Elimination Act and The School Nutrition Red Tape Reduction Act aim to make it easier for school nutrition programs to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision. | Photo: Shutterstock

Two bills have been introduced at the federal level that are aimed at expanding free school meal access for students. Universal free school meals was also a topic of interest at the state level this week, with lawmakers in Delaware advancing a bill that would cover reduced-price meals for students.

Here’s what you may have missed in school nutrition legislation.

Federal bills would enable more students to eat at school for free

U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and John Fetterman (D-PA) have introduced two bills aimed at expanding universal free school meal access for students and increasing the meal reimbursement rate for school meals.

Both The School Hunger Elimination Act and The School Nutrition Red Tape Reduction Act aim to make it easier for school nutrition programs to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

CEP allows participating schools and districts to serve meals to all students for free, regardless of their family income. Participating schools and districts also do not need to collect free or reduced-price meal applications. Individual schools, a group of schools or an entire district can participate in CEP. 

Currently, to be eligible for CEP, a school, group of schools or district must have an identified student percentage (ISP) of at least 40%. The ISP is the percentage of the student body that is eligible for free meals at school due to their families’ participation in federal benefits programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Schools calculate their ISP by dividing the number of students who are eligible for free meals through federal benefits programs by the total student enrollment. A multiplier of 1.6 is also applied to the ISP to account for low-income students who do not participate in such federal programs. 

The School Hunger Elimination Act would increase that multiplier to 2.5, making it easier for schools to qualify for the program. In addition, the bill would expand the amount of students who participate in Medicaid to be automatically certified for free or reduced-price meals.

The School Nutrition Red Tape Reduction Act would also expand CEP access by lowering the ISP percentage needed to qualify for the program.

Last fall, the USDA issued a final rule reducing the ISP needed to qualify for CEP from 40% to 25%. The School Nutrition Red Tape Reduction Act would take that ruling and make it into law.

“Ensuring that our children have enough to eat is one of the most fundamental responsibilities we have,” said Senator Fetterman in a statement. “It’s simply unacceptable that children in our nation suffer from food insecurity because of excessive red tape and petty political games in Washington. We must do more to cut through bureaucratic hurdles and improve our nutrition programs. Both of these bills would go a long way to create a healthier, more equitable future for all of our children. I’m proud to partner with Senator Casey on this critical issue.”

This is not the first time bills at the federal level have been introduced that would expand CEP access.  A federal bill introduced last year also aimed to raise the multiplier used to qualify for the program.

Delaware House says yes to bill that would cover reduced-price meals

The Delaware House has passed H.B. 125 which would provide free school breakfast and lunch to students who qualify for reduced-priced meals.

Originally, the bill would have provided free meals at school to all students, regardless of their family’s financial background. The original legislation was deemed too costly, however, and was substituted with the current bill last month.

The bill now heads to the Senate. If it were to become law, Delaware would join other states, including Connecticut in covering reduced price meals for students.

See which states currently offer universal free meals via the map below:

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