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Community Eligibility: The Key to Hunger-Free Schools School Year 2022–2023

Executive Summary

The 2022–2023 school year marked the end of the pandemic-related child nutrition waivers that have allowed schools across the country to offer meals to all their students at no charge since spring 2020. Through the waivers, students, families, and schools were able to experience the benefits of Healthy School Meals for All. School districts reported numerous benefits, including reduced childhood hunger, elimination of stigma from participating in school meals, easing administrative work, supporting academic achievement, and eliminating school meal debt.1 School nutrition professionals did not want to return to pre-pandemic operations,2 and according to Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) polling, 63 percent of voters nationwide support legislation that would make healthy school meals for all students a permanent policy.

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) has offered high-need school districts and schools an important opportunity to continue to offer school breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge for another four years instead of transitioning back to normal school nutrition operations, resulting in significant growth in community eligibility participation. Created through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, community eligibility can be adopted by any district, group of schools in a district, or school with 40 percent or more “identified students” — children who are eligible for free school meals and already identified by means other than an individual household application. Schools that participate in community eligibility often see increased participation in school meals, allowing more students to experience the many educational and health benefits linked to school meal participation. A 2022 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) community eligibility study on school year 2016– 2017 found a 6.8 percent increase in school lunch participation and a 12.1 percent increase in school breakfast.

Under community eligibility, schools no longer have to collect and process school meal applications, which reduces administrative costs and paperwork, allowing school nutrition staff to focus more on offering healthy, appealing meals. Moreover, offering meals at no charge to all students eliminates the stigma from the perception that school meals are only for “children from low-income families,” and facilitates the implementation of breakfast after the bell service models, such as breakfast in the classroom, which further boosts participation.


Source: Food Research and Action Center (2023). Community Eligibility: The Key to Hunger-Free Schools.