Federal bills push for more free meals at school

Also in this week’s legislative update: Georgia gives cafeteria staff a pay raise, and senators in Vermont say yes to universal free meals.
Students eating lunch in the cafeteria
Congresswoman Katie Porter has introduced two bills that would expand free school meal access./ Photo: Shutterstock

A set of federal bills were introduced this past week that would expand school meal access for students throughout the country. 

Meanwhile, Georgia and New York’s state budgets include funding for school nutrition programs, and Vermont takes another step toward permanently implementing universal free meals. 

Here’s the latest in K-12 nutrition legislation. 

Federal bills would expand free meal access 

Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-Calif.) has reintroduced a federal bill that would expand the number of schools eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The bill aims to enable states to have their own community eligibility program that would use state, not federal funds, for meal reimbursement. She first introduced the bill, the No Hungry Kids in Schools Act, in December. 

Rep. Porter also debuted the Expanding Access to School Meals Act, which would eliminate the reduced-price category for school breakfast and lunch, and require that income guidelines for determining students’ eligibility for free school meals be 200% of the poverty level. 

Full text for both bills has yet to be published online. They’ve both been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

“Keeping kids fed is the right thing to do, and it’s proven to help them focus and learn,” Rep. Porter said in a statement. “Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce, and nutritious school meals boost achievement, attendance and behavior, strengthening our nation’s future.”

Georgia gives cafeteria staff a pay raise   

School cafeteria staff in Georgia will be getting a pay raise, thanks to the latest state budget signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, which includes a 5.1% salary bump for K-12 cafeteria workers in fiscal year 2024. 

As school nutrition programs continue to face staffing shortages, some schools are trying to retain employees through higher pay. Close to half (49%) of K-12 operators who participated in FoodService Director’s 2022 State of K-12 survey said that they’ve raised employees’ salaries as part of their retention strategy. 

New York plans to cover school meals for CEP participants 

New York’s 2024 fiscal year budget includes $134 million to reimburse schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) for meals not covered by the federal government. 

CEP allows participating schools and districts where at least 40% of students are identified as low-income to serve meals to all students for free, regardless of their family income. However, depending on a school or district’s percentage of low-income students, not all the meals may be reimbursed at the free rate.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a proposed rule that would lower the threshold of low-income students needed to participate in the program from 40% to 25%. 

New York lawmakers have called on Governor Kathy Hochul to include funding for universal free meals in the state’s 2024 budget. Eighty-nine percent of New Yorkers say that universal free meals should be provided to students in the state, according to a survey by the NY Health Foundation.

Vermont senate approves universal free meals 

Vermont is one step closer to permanently establishing free meals for all students. The state senate voted in favor of H.165, which would provide free school breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students. It now heads to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, and remains unclear whether he is expected to sign it. 

If signed into law, Vermont would be the sixth state to permanently offer free meals at school. 

Vermont students are temporarily receiving free meals after Gov. Scott signed S.100 into law last June. 

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



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