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More schools can now offer free meals after federal policy change, but cost is still a burden

 A student at Oakville Elementary School eats his lunch. Preliminary data on the national lunch program shows schools served almost 130 million fewer free or reduced price meals in the fall of 2022 compared to the same time period right before the pandemic.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A student at Oakville Elementary School pauses before eating his lunch. Preliminary data on the national lunch program shows schools served almost 130 million fewer free or reduced-price meals in fall 2022 compared to the same time period right before the pandemic.

A change in federal policy has some school districts considering a return to free meals for all of their students.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this week lowered the threshold for schools to qualify for free meals in a program called the Community Eligibility Provision. The districts that now qualify could choose to offer free meals, much as they did at the height of the pandemic.

The program allows school districts in high-need areas, where many students live in poverty, to give all students free breakfast and lunch. This week, the USDA changed the qualification threshold from 40% to 25% of students who are participating in needs-based federal programs, which the department says will give 3,000 more school districts the opportunity to offer free meals to all students.

Now, qualifying districts are looking at their finances to see if they can afford to sign up for the program. In the St. James school district in Missouri, Superintendent Tim Webster said the federal reimbursement rate for meals has to be weighed against the numbers of students who qualify and even school meal debt, which increased as students returned to the paid system.

“We're very thankful that the USDA would drop that threshold, because that's a great thing for our students,” Webster said. “But at the same time, we have to make sure that it financially makes sense for the district to still not lose money.”

In the end, many districts will likely still have to say no to the program, and the finances are even harder for the districts that are newly qualified, because the federal reimbursement rate is tied to the number of high-need students the district educates. Even when districts qualified at the higher threshold, just over 60% of eligible school districts chose to participate in the program in both Missouri and Illinois, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Illinois is trying to go a step further. It passed legislation to make meals free for all students, joining a handful of other states. But the Illinois legislature has not yet funded the program. Advocates are calling on the legislature to allocate funding to feed all Illinois students for free.

“There is a lot of interest in and dedication in making sure students are fed,” said Kathryn Bernstein, a senior program manager with the Illinois Public Health Institute, an organization that advocates for improved public health. “It's just always a challenge to work out the budget and ensure that every program that's important receives funding.”

The Illinois law relies, in part, on the Community Eligibility Program; it encourages districts that qualify to participate, to make sure the state is maximizing its federal funding. If the legislature funds the plan, students could get universal free meals starting next school year.

Webster wants to see more states take a similar approach.

“Honestly, I really wish we could financially get to a point where we could just provide free meals for all of our students,” Webster said. “I know several states have done it, and it's unfortunate for the students that this is a financial burden to them.”

Correction: a previous St. Louis Public Radio report misnamed the Food Research and Action Center.

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.