By Zoe Han
For the first time in nearly two years, not all school meals in the U.S. will be free. But eligible families can still receive help paying for meals — as long as they turn in the paperwork.
The universal school-meal program was part of the federal government’s emergency nutrition relief — a service that was expanded in 2020 to help families get through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of people lost their jobs. It was not renewed for this school year.
Under the program, all children enrolled in public schools received free meals through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.
On Wednesday, President Biden pledged to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030 and commit $8 billion by the public and private sector to fight hunger and related diseases, as he launched the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health since 1969.
He said the government will invest more in school nutrition programs with partnership across the nonprofit and private sectors, and educational programs to promote healthy eating and prevent illnesses including heart disease and diabetes.
The federal government, meanwhile, will continue to provide free school meals to children whose families have an annual income at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. For most states, that translates to an annual salary at or below $34,450 for a family of four.
If a household has an annual income of 130% to 185% of the federal poverty level, the children in that household are eligible for meals at a reduced price of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.
Parents can submit applications at any time during the year, according to the Department of Agriculture . Schools usually inform parents about the application process at the beginning of the school year, and experts recommend that they submit their application as soon as possible.
If parents aren’t sure whether they need to fill out an application, they should ask their school district or school, said Crystal FitzSimons, a program director at the Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that fights poverty-related hunger and lack of nutrition.
“I wouldn’t wait to do it,” FitzSimons told MarketWatch. “Because the sooner you’re certified, the better.”
For the first 30 days of the school year, the eligibility carryover from the previous year allows families to continue receiving free meals, according to the Department of Agriculture. That gives families time to fill out the application for the new school year.
Not all children will be enrolled automatically
If a child is eligible for free school meals, the parents have to apply for them, with two exceptions.
The first exception is if the school participates in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) . Under this program, local school districts in high-poverty areas provide free school meals to all students in the district; parents do not need to fill out an application. (The measure to determine high-poverty areas varies. You can search for your school in this database .)
However, if a family has one child who attends a CEP school and another who doesn’t, the child who is not in a CEP school does require an application, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that provides low-cost meals to millions of children in the U.S.
The second exception: If a household participates in a federal assistance program, the children should automatically be enrolled in the free meal program.
Such programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); all schoolchildren in a family that receives SNAP benefits will automatically qualify for free meals. The rule also applies to families that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
The process, called direct certification, automatically extends free meals to those students, Pratt-Heavner said, but added that it’s always a good idea to check with the school to make sure.
Apply, even if your state provides free meals
Several states are rolling out their own universal school-meal programs. A few states, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont , will continue to provide free school meals to all students in public schools for the current school year, regardless of household-income levels.
Even so, eligible parents should still send in their applications for the federal program. Because school breakfasts and lunches operate under federal guidelines, schools are reimbursed by the federal government for free-meal support, with the level of reimbursement dependent on how many applications the school receives, Pratt-Heavner told MarketWatch.
“If a family that’s eligible for a free meal doesn’t apply, the state is going to have to pay more money for the cost of preparing that meal,” said Pratt-Heavner. That could result in less funding going into other areas for students or affect how long the state can support the free-meal program.
What about families that are not eligible?
“We are extremely concerned that there are going to be families and students who fall through the cracks this year,” Pratt-Heavner told MarketWatch. “Getting families to apply for meal benefits has always been a challenge. But it’s even more so now.”
She’s concerned about households that are just above the eligibility threshold but still need help, especially families in urban areas that have experienced a sharp increase in the cost of living over the last couple of years.
Millions of families are struggling with rising prices. The year-over-year inflation rate was at 8.3% in August, and food prices were up 11.4%. Both are at their highest level in 40 years.
Two-thirds of Americans reported in late July that they had been worried at least once in the previous month about not being able to afford groceries, and households with young kids reported the highest levels of stress, according to a LendingTree survey .
Parents can turn to schools and the community for help, Pratt-Heavner said. Some schools have weekend backpack programs that send extra food home for families in need.
“No child should go hungry during the school day,” she said. “No child should have to go into the cafeteria wondering whether they have enough money in their account to be able to eat today, which is why it’s so important for the federal government, for Congress, to just step up and provide these meals.”