USDA plan to expand school lunch eligibility praised

Children eating lunch together

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Statement of CSPI Campaign Manager for Federal Child Nutrition Programs Meghan Maroney

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a rule today that would expand the number of schools eligible to provide free meals for all students under the federal Community Eligibility Provision by lowering the minimum identified student percentage participation threshold from 40 percent to 25 percent. The Center for Science in the Public Interest applauds this proposal and urges USDA to finalize it expeditiously.  

For over two years, schools nationwide provided free breakfast and lunch to all students as part of the federal COVID-19 response. That policy ended last summer, rendering millions of children suddenly ineligible for free school meals. As a result, millions of children have racked unsustainable debts to their school meals programs, a fate no child should face. School nutrition programs have faced an impossible choice—between turning kids away or bringing their programs deeper into debt. And all while dealing with staff shortages and record inflation. 

Congress has had numerous opportunities to remedy this but has repeatedly failed to act. Meanwhile, a growing number of states (including California, Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota) have passed, or are working to pass, state legislation to cover the cost of free meals for all kids permanently. 

USDA’s proposed rule, if finalized, would bring free school meals to 9 million more kids nationwide, and would bring cost saving to states that have already passed free-meals-for-all legislation. 

It’s time to recognize the immense benefits—from health and educational outcomes to social and emotional wellbeing—that come with free meals for all kids. USDA’s proposal will bring us one step closer to providing the fuel kids need in order to learn.  

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