A USDA policy change allows more Ohio schools to serve free meals, but advocates say many won’t

Posted on:

< < Back to

YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio (WYSO) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently changed a policy that could allow more Ohio schools to serve free meals. But advocates say it may not be financially feasible for many schools.

A school cafeteria sits empty.
[Rob Byron |]
If a school has a high enough percentage of low-income students, it is eligible to serve free breakfast and lunch to all of its students with the federal government picking up part of the cost through a program called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

The threshold to be eligible for the free meals program was 40%, though the USDA — which oversees the National School Lunch Program— recently lowered it to 25%.

But Diane Pratt-Heavner, with the School Nutrition Association, said many schools who are eligible likely won’t enroll.

“Community eligibility provision does not guarantee that federal reimbursements will cover all the costs of serving free meals to all students. Your identified student percentage has to be high enough,” Pratt-Heavner said.

She explained that even if the school qualifies to enroll into the program, it needs to have a 62% identified low-income student percentage to receive a full reimbursement from the federal government.

“If the identified student percentage rate is too low, then a large portion of the meals that those schools serve will be reimbursed at a much lower paid rate,” Pratt-Heavner said.

Because of that, Pratt-Heavner said it is unlikely that many schools will enroll into the program despite the recent changes. She did add there’s a bill in Congress that would increase the reimbursement rates if approved.

“[It] would result in increased student access to free school meals. However, given the state of the House of Representatives and the appropriations process, I’m not sure we’ll see movement.” Pratt-Heavner said in a statement.

The changes come as anti-hunger advocates call on policymakers to fund free school meals, much as they did through the pandemic up until 2021.

Earlier this year, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed the states biennial budget, which funded free school meals for some income-eligible students. Though advocates said it didn’t go far enough. So far, a handful of neighboring states have passed legislation, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois.


Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.