The U.S. Department of Agriculture is weighing final regulations on free school meals and stricter school nutrition standards. The Department will make a final decision by April 2024.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should release final rules in April 2024 on two important school meal policies: the expansion of free meals served to all students attending high-poverty schools and heightened school meal nutrition guidance.
Expanding free school meals eligibility
The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools with high concentrations of low-income families to serve all students free school meals (breakfast and lunch) without requiring families to apply for the free meals. USDA’s proposed rule would lower the minimum poverty threshold for a school or district’s CEP eligibility from 40 percent of enrolled students to 25 percent.
This rulemaking proposes to expand access to the Community Eligibility Provision by lowering the minimum identified student percentage participation threshold from 40 percent to 25 percent, which would give states and schools greater flexibility to choose to invest non-federal funds to offer no-cost meals to all enrolled students. As a result, more students, families, and schools would have an opportunity to experience the benefits of the Community Eligibility Provision, including access to meals at no cost, eliminating unpaid meal charges, minimizing stigma, reducing paperwork for school nutrition staff and families, and streamlining meal service operations.
According to the educational policy and reporting website K-12 Drive, the proposed rule could also be virtual signaling for greater policy shifts:
An expanded CEP has also been viewed as a pathway to bring back the pandemic-era waivers that allowed universal free school meals nationwide. In fact, the number of schools and districts participating in CEP jumped 21% for the 2022-23 school year following the June 2022 expiration of that waiver.
Stricter school nutrition standards
Also up for consideration is USDA’s February proposed rule to gradually implement more stringent school nutrition standards received. According to USDA, the proposal “is the next step in an ongoing effort toward healthier school meals that USDA and the broader school meals community have been partnering on for well over a decade.” The suggested rule would revise standards on whole grains, sugar, and sodium, requiring schools to offer primarily whole grain products starting in fall 2024 and incrementally minimize sugar and sodium content through 2029.
Based on the latest nutrition science and extensive feedback from our school meal partners, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is proposing updates to the school nutrition standards in a few key areas to give kids the right balance of nutrients for healthy and appealing meals. The proposed updates reflect the most recent Dietary Guidelines, as required by law, and build in plenty of time for planning and implementation to ensure the school meals community and the kids they serve have the best chance for long-term success.
The proposal received “a flood of public comments” — over 136,000, and according to K-12 Drive, public reaction to the proposal has been split between “those who say the move would make meals healthier and those who say it is unrealistic and would deter student participation in school meal programs.”