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Program Basics

Research shows that participation in school lunch reduces food insecurity, improves dietary intake, positively impacts health and obesity rates, and by meeting children’s nutritional needs leads to a better learning environment.

About the National School Lunch Program

  • Administered at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS), and at the state level by the New York State Education Department’s Child Nutrition Program Administration.
  • Any public school, nonprofit private school, and residential child-care institution can provide lunch to students through the National School Lunch Program.
  • Any student attending a school that offers the program can eat lunch, but students must meet certain criteria to qualify for free meals.
  • All meals must meet federal nutrition guidelines, which require schools to serve more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Schools receive state and federal reimbursement for each lunch served. The reimbursement amount varies based on a student’s qualification for free, reduced-price, or paid meals.
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All students may participate in the National School Lunch Program, but they must meet certain criteria to qualify for free or reduced-price meals. In New York State, legislation was passed to eliminate the student reduced-price co-payment. Therefore, all students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals eat breakfast and lunch at no cost to them. Students can qualify for free or reduced price meals in the following ways:

Income verification
Based on family income, some students qualify to eat for free. Families can apply by submitting an application to their school.

Categorical eligibility
Some children are categorically eligible — automatically eligible — for free meals without the need to verify household income.

  • Children directly certified for free school meals because their household participates in:
    • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF),
    • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR),
    • Medicaid (and are determined by the Medicaid Program to be at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty guidelines).
  • Children certified for free school meals without an application also include students who are considered homeless or a runaway, migrant, in foster care, or participating in Head Start.
  • In New York State, schools use the Direct Certification Matching Process (DCMP) where NYSED provides schools with an electronic data matching to cross-reference SNAP and Medicaid data with their student databases to automatically enroll students for free school meals. Other categories of directly certified students must be identified through the proper channels. (i.e. McKinney Vento liaison, DSS, Office of Children and Families, etc).
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Universal School Lunch

Many schools across New York State offer both breakfast and lunch for free to all students. Schools can use the following provisions to offer free lunch:

  • Community Eligibility
    Schools that use community eligibility have seen increases in participation in school breakfast and school lunch and reduced administrative costs as community eligibility schools no longer have to collect school meals applications.
  • Provision 2
    Providing school meals at no cost to students has a wide range of benefits — from removing the stigma associated with school meals, boosting participation among students, to eliminating school meal debt.

Unpaid School Meal Debt

New York State has established a consistent statewide policy to address unpaid school lunch debt ensuring children without money for a meal are not singled out, provided a lesser meal, or otherwise treated differently for not having money for a meal.

Learn more about school meal debt and opportunities to address this issue nationwide.

We can help

We can provide you with resources, data, and best-practices to improve participation in school meal programs. We provide tailored one-on-one assistance to schools, supported by extensive district-level analysis, to help:

  • Increase access to and participation in the School Breakfast Program
  • Implement alternative breakfast service models
  • Offer universal meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP)
  • Maximize direct certification, program participation, and funding for successful meal programs.

Contact Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, Manager, School Meals Policy & Engagement, for assistance.

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