USDA is proposing a rules change that would allow more schools to offer free meals to all students regardless of their income. 

Under an existing community eligibility provision, schools can offer free meals to all students if at least 40% of the students have household incomes below the federal poverty line. USDA is proposing to lower the threshold to 25%. 

On its own, the proposed change would not increase federal spending school meals, but the lower threshold would make it easier for states to expand free meals, if they choose to do so, USDA says. Several states are moving to do that, including Colorado, California and Minnesota.

USDA officials say they don't know how many additional children will ultimately be affected by the rules change. But Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters "the expectation would be that we'll see an increased participation."

The Biden administration is separately asking Congress for $15 billion over 10 years to allow the rules change to extend free meals to 9 million more kids nationwide. About 16 million kids get free meals under the existing rules. 

There are roughly 33,000 school districts that use the community eligibility provision, or CEP, which “allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications," according to USDA. 

Schools that choose to participate in the program are reimbursed by determining the number of students who also qualify for other programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. 

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Vilsack said the program will offer many opportunities for both school districts and students. It will help school districts avoid absorbing “the debts for school meals that can't be paid” and limit the shame and embarrassment of students who would have to wait in a different line or be in “a different circumstance than their classmates during the school breakfast or school meals.”

“It offers the assurance that youngsters who are currently dependent on these meals will continue to be so and have them available. And it offers the opportunity for school districts to redirect resources that they would otherwise be utilized for the administrative expense to continue to look for strategies to improve the quality of meals,” said Vilsack. 

The proposed change will be open for a 45-day comment period which begins on March 23. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service encourages all interested parties to comment on the CEP proposed rule here. 

The department also announced that it was providing $50 million in School Food System Transformation Challenge Grants that will “unite the public and private sector in expanding healthier food options” in the food marketplace” and $10 million to the Team Nutrition Grants that will expand nutrition education “beyond the cafeteria.”

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