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Proposal would expand free meals for all kids to more schools

A student pays for lunch of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program.
A student pays for lunch of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program.

A federal proposal would give more schools the option to provide free meals to all students. Though, if the change were enacted, it’s unclear if all eligible schools would be able to take advantage of the proposal because of the cost.

The proposal would make it easier for districts and states that want to expand the provision of healthy meals for all, said Stacy Dean, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program.

“It means more kids are set up ready to learn. It fundamentally reduces stigma on who is eating the meals,” Dean said.

Currently, if at least 40% of students at a school would qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the school has the option to offer free meals to all students under what’s known as the “Community Eligibility Provision.” (Some schools right around this 40% threshold still don’t offer the free meals to all kids, however, because the cost of all the meals is not completely reimbursed by the federal government. Costs aren’t fully reimbursed for the schools until 62% of kids qualify.)

The proposal would lower the threshold at which schools could offer free meals to all kids from 40% to 25% — though it would not change how much gets reimbursed by the federal government. For districts to offer the meals to everyone, they would still need to make up some costs.

Some districts, like Pittsburgh Public Schools, already offer free meals to all kids because of this provision. The proposal could potentially help local districts like Baldwin-Whitehall, Keystone Oaks, and Elizabeth Forward, where some schools currently qualify for community eligibility, but others are on the cusp.

Kevin Lloyd, director of dining services at Keystone Oaks School Districts, said he’s hopeful the district would be able to implement free meals for all kids next school year. Keystone Oaks encompasses Castle Shannon, Dormont, and Green Tree; currently the district is able to only offer free meals for all kids in some of its schools.

“I've seen the numbers,” he said. “The participation increases more — more people are getting food when [meals are] free.”

Such a move would also free the district of burdensome administrative requirements, Lloyd said.

“The program — as it is now, running the free, reduced, and paid eligibility — is cumbersome for the district. We have to maintain an application process that is monitored pretty strictly by the USDA and Department of Education. There's a great deal of paperwork involved. There are constant checks and balances on eligibility applications. There's a great deal of back-office work done right now that would go away.”

Advocate Ann Sanders, of Pittsburgh anti-hunger group Just Harvest, said federal rules that allowed free meals for all students during the pandemic were eye-opening for schools.

“What happened during the pandemic is schools realized, free school meals are great,” Sanders said. “By offering the meals to everyone, “it streamlines their process. They don't have to worry about collecting debt. They know what they're going to get in terms of reimbursement. And it's better overall for … the school culture. Everyone gets the same meals.”

A pair of bills in the state House and Senate would provide free school meals to all kids in public schools statewide; both bills are in committee.

You can read the proposal or offer comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture here. The comment period ends May 8.

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Kate Giammarise