USDA expands CEP access

Around 3,000 more school districts will be able to offer free meals to students under the Community Eligibility Provision.
A student holds a lunch tray full of food
The USDA's final rule will allow more students in high-need areas to receive free meals at school. | Photo: Shutterstock

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)  has issued a final rule to expand Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) access across the country.

CEP allows participating schools and districts to offer free school breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of their family income.

Before the USDA’s final rule, schools and districts could only qualify for the program if at least 40% of their student body lived in households that participate in federal assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

First proposed in March, this final rule will lower that threshold from 40% to 25%, allowing more schools and districts to participate. The move will impact an additional 3,000 school districts, the USDA estimates, and takes effect on Oct. 26. 

“Today’s announcement comes as we approach the one-year anniversary of the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, where the Biden-Harris Administration promised to advance a pathway to healthy school meals for all students,” Tom Vilsack, USDA secretary of agriculture, said in a statement. “USDA has taken an important step toward fulfilling that promise by expanding access to CEP. Increasing access to free, healthy school breakfast and lunch will decrease childhood hunger, improve child health and student readiness, and put our nation on the path to better nutrition and wellness.”

This is one of many recent pushes to expand access to free meals for U.S. students, a movement that has gained steam since the COVID pandemic. The School Nutrition Association has continued to advocate for offering free school meals to all students at no cost, and other industry leaders have also gotten on board with the idea. Meanwhile, multiple states have enacted legislation to prolong universal free meal programs, or make them permanent.



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