‘No child should go hungry on a school day’: Who still qualifies for free school lunches – and how can they apply?

For the first time in nearly two years, not all school meals are free in the US. But eligible families can still get help paying for food — as long as they file the paperwork.

The universal school-meal program was part of the federal government’s Emergency Nutrition Relief – a service expanded in 2020 to help families cope with the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when millions of people lost their jobs. 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.

The federal government will continue to provide free school meals to children with annual household incomes below 130 percent of the federal poverty level or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For most states, that translates to an annual salary of less than $34,450 or so for a family of four.

‘No child should go hungry on a school day.’

If a family has an annual income between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level, children in that family are eligible for discounted meals of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

Parents can apply at any time of the year, according to the Department of Agriculture. Schools usually notify parents about the application process at the beginning of the school year, and experts recommend submitting your 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 Fitzsimmons, program director at the Food Research Center to Fight Poverty in Washington, D.C. – Malnutrition and hunger.

“I don’t expect to do it,” FitzSimons told MarketWatch. “Because the sooner you’re certified, the better.”

For the first 30 days of the school year, qualifying shipments from last year allow families to continue receiving free meals, the Agriculture Department says. This will give families time to complete the application for the new school year.

Not all children are automatically enrolled.

If a child qualifies for free school meals, parents must apply for them with two exceptions.

The first exception is if the school participates in Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Through this program, local school districts in high poverty provide free school meals to all students in the district. Parents do not need to fill out an application. (Measurements used to determine high poverty areas vary. You can search for your school in this database.)

However, if a family has one child attending a CEP school and another is not, the non-CEP child needs to apply, said Diane Pratt Hevner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association. A non-profit that provides low-cost meals to millions of children in the US

All eligible parents must apply for free school meals with two exceptions.

The second exception: If a family participates in a federal subsidy program, the children must immediately enroll in the free meal program.

Such programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); All school children who receive SNAP benefits are automatically eligible for free meals. The rule also applies to families receiving temporary assistance for needy families and food distribution programs on Indian reservations.

A process called direct certification automatically extends free meals to those students, Pratt-Heavner said, but it’s always a good idea to check with the school to make sure.

Apply, even if your state offers free meals.

Several states are developing their own universal school-meal programs. A few states, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont, will continue to provide school meals to all students for the current school year, regardless of family-income levels.

However, eligible parents must still submit their application for the federal program. Because school breakfasts and lunches operate under federal guidelines, schools are reimbursed by the federal government for free meal assistance, with the level of payment based on how many applications the school receives, Pratt-Heavner told MarketWatch.

“If a family that’s eligible for free meals doesn’t apply, the state has to pay more for that meal,” Pratt Hevner said. That could mean less money goes to other areas for students or affect how long the state can fund the free meal program.

What about ineligible families?

“We’re very concerned that there are families and students who are struggling this year,” Pratt-Heavner told MarketWatch. “Getting families to apply for food benefits has always been a challenge. Now it’s even more so.”

She is concerned about households that exceed the eligibility threshold but still need assistance, particularly those in urban areas that have experienced significant increases in the cost of living over the past two years.

Millions of families are struggling with inflation. Year-on-year inflation was 8.3 percent in August, while food prices rose 11.4 percent. Both are at their highest level in 40 years.

Two-thirds of Americans reported at the end of July that they had worried about not being able to buy groceries at least once in the past month, and families with young children 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 to families in need.

“No child should go hungry during the school day,” she said. “No child should walk into the cafeteria thinking they have enough money in their account to eat today, and that’s why it’s important for the federal government, for Congress, to just provide these meals.”

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