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NEA News

‘An Amazing Victory’: Free School Meals for More Students

The USDA, supported by NEA advocacy, expands access to free lunch and breakfast for all students.
universal free meals schools
Published: November 27, 2023

Key Takeaways

  1. Making free meals available to all students reduces stigma and shame for students whose families can't afford school meals.
  2. It is more efficient and less expensive to offer free meals to all students than to track balances and send communications to families about low balances.
  3. Educators know that kids would rather go without lunch and be hungry than be turned away for unpaid balances, which impacts behavior and learning for the whole school day.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is giving an estimated 3,000 more school districts in high-need areas the option to serve breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost, by expanding the availability of the Community Eligibility Provision, commonly known as CEP.

CEP is a simplified option that allows schools to provide meals at no cost to all students without requiring families to apply for free and reduced-price meals. This final rule lowers the threshold schools have to meet to qualify from 40 percent to 25 percent, bringing the program to millions more students.

Expansion Comes after Ongoing NEA Advocacy

The CEP expansion comes after years of advocacy by NEA around universal schools meals.

“This is an amazing victory,” said NEA Vice President Princess Moss, who still recalls hiding her free lunch application when she was a child because she was ashamed.

“My second grade teacher, Mrs. Lucy T. Lewis, knew that my family qualified to apply and so she asked me, where was my form?  I sheepishly handed it over.  I remember the blue lunch ticket, the green one, and the white one.” 

As someone who was a part of the free lunch program throughout her school years, Moss understands how much this will help students who won’t have to suffer the stigma of participating in the meal program while their classmates pay full price.  

Mandi Jung, a Minnesota middle school science teacher, knows from personal experience as well. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but had enough that they didn’t qualify for free school meals.

“I wasn’t a free lunch kid, but I was a hungry kid, even though my parents did without so my sister and I could have more. This legislation would have made such a huge difference for us,” Jung says. “We could maybe have afforded more doctors’ appointments or to turn the thermostat up a bit. Free lunch programs help working families like ours. And what’s more important than feeding kids? What would you rather spend your tax money on?”

Eight States Already Ensure Access for All

While this change in CEP applies across the country, it will be particularly impactful in states and school districts which commit to supporting healthy school meals for all students with their own funds.

Eight states have taken additional permanent actions to make sure hunger is not a barrier to children’s success, in addition to allowing eligible schools to participate in CEP. California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont passed state laws allowing their schools to serve healthy school meals to all their students at no cost. In these states, schools that previously were not eligible for CEP can now take advantage of this final rule to experience more efficient, streamlined school meal operations as well as predictable federal funding levels.

The state laws wouldn’t have passed without advocacy from educators and NEA members like Mandi Jung, who testified on behalf of her students before the Minnesota state legislature.

In her testimony, she shared reminded the lawmakers how quickly a middle schoolers prefrontal cortex is developing.

This is the social part of the brain. In middle school, kids start to figure out how the world works.

“So maybe you’re a seventh grader in the lunch line and you get up to the cafeteria worker and they tell you that you don’t have any money in your account. You might worry about who overheard that conversation or what the cafeteria worker thinks of you and your family."

And if your family can’t put any money in your account, she continued, you see your family’s embarrassment and frustration and stress as they receive emails and voicemails and letters reminding them that you have a negative account balance. So maybe you make the decision to avoid those negative feelings by just not getting in the lunch line anymore.

“This burden is too great for a child,” she told the lawmakers. “The simplest solution is to just feed the kids.”

Mandi Jung on Universal Free Lunches

Benefits of Free Meals

CEP – and all models for providing healthy school meals for all at no cost – is a win-win for schools, kids, families and communities and provides many benefits, including:

  • Lowering food costs for families;
  • Increasing food and nutrition security, especially for students from households that barely miss the cutoff to be eligible for free and reduced-price school meals;
  • Eliminating school meal debt;
  • Reducing social stigma for students who eat free or reduced-price meals, while other students pay full price;
  • Increasing student participation in school breakfast and lunch programs, which increases revenues and helps schools offer healthier meals; and
  • Saving time by simplifying program operations for hardworking school nutrition staff.

“Healthy school meals are an essential part of the school environment — just like teachers, classrooms and books – and set kids up for success and better health,” said Stacy Dean, USDA deputy under secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services. “More children are fueled for learning and development when they can count on tasty, nutritious meals at school. While there is still more work ahead to ensure every K-12 student in the nation can access healthy school meals at no cost, this is a significant step on the pathway towards that goal.”

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.