USDA expands access to free school breakfast and lunch for more students

Millions of additional students in schools serving low-income communities across the country will be eligible to receive breakfast and lunch at no cost, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced.

The department is expanding access to the Community Eligibility Provision, which is a meal service option that allows schools to provide no-cost meals to all students. Previously, at least 40% of students’ households had to be enrolled in income-based federal assistance programs to be eligible. The new rule lowers that threshold to 25%.

"Increasing access to free, healthy school breakfast and lunch will decrease childhood hunger, improve child health and student readiness, and put our nation on the path to better nutrition and wellness," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release Tuesday.

Roughly 3,000 additional school districts serving more than 5 million students will now be eligible, officials said.

Grants worth $30 million from the Healthy Meals Incentives will be distributed to 264 rural school districts across the country. Another $30 million in equipment grants will be given to states and school districts with school lunch programs. About $11 million in Farm to School grants will be used to serve 1.2 million children, according to the USDA release.

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'Essential part of the school environment'

Eight states, including California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont, already allow schools to serve free meals to all of their students. USDA officials said the change applies all over the nation but will be particularly impactful in states and school districts that use their own money to provide no-cost meals.

The rule change comes as schools across the country are raising the cost of lunches and breakfasts for kids this fall to head off the costs of food and staff. Price increases for school meals are set to take effect in districts including the Nassau County School District in New York, the Canyon Independent School District in Texas and the Moore County Public School District in North Carolina.

Additionally, the federal government could soon require schools to serve meals with less salt and sugar, which would be more expensive to prepare and serve.

"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 undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, in a statement. "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 toward that goal."

The program lowers food costs for families, increases meal security for households near the income cutoff, and eliminates school debt related to nutrition, according to the release. USDA officials also noted that it would reduce the social stigma for students who eat reduced-cost meals.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Free school meals expanded to more students across the United States