School Food Programs

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are federally supported meal programs that provide nutritional meals to many students at little or no cost. Essentially all public schools in Massachusetts offer school lunch and almost 90 percent offer breakfast. The National School Lunch program provided free or low-cost meals to over 515,000 kids in Massachusetts in FY 2015, with many of those students also receiving free breakfast. There are also smaller-scale school food programs that operate during the summer and through after school programs. School districts get cash reimbursements from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in exchange for serving meals that meet federal requirements and agreeing to offer free or reduced price meals to all eligible students.

While most funding for these meal programs comes from the federal government, the state contributes an annual match of $5.4 million for participation in the National School Lunch Program, and the state funds school breakfast programs that provide supplemental breakfast reimbursements, mostly to high-poverty schools, on top of existing federal breakfast reimbursements.

Over the past several years, the USDA has implemented notable improvements to school meals programs, allowing the highest-poverty schools across the country to serve free breakfast and lunch for all students through a program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This system can increase the number of kids receiving free meals while reducing the potential stigma for students receiving free meals. CEP can work particularly well with innovative models for school breakfast, including breakfast in the classroom, which allows all students to access free breakfast during regular school hours. CEP also reduces the administrative burden of collecting applications from households and checking students’ meal status in school cafeterias each day.

Under CEP, schools with over 40 percent students eligible for free meals can replace paper forms with a process called Direct Certification, which automatically enrolls students for free meals if they are already participating in programs for low- and moderate-income families, including SNAP (Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid (MassHealth). Students participating in these programs are identified as eligible for free school meals and are reimbursed at a higher rate by the USDA. Students in several other categories, such as homeless students and those in foster care, are also considered categorically eligible for free school meals.

Federal reimbursements are calculated differently for schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision. In those schools, the number of students directly certified for free meals is multiplied by 1.6 to determine the percent of meals that will be reimbursed at the free rate by the USDA. When a school reaches 62.5 percent identified students all meals served at the school will be reimbursed at the free rate (62.5 percent identified students times the 1.6 multiplication factor leads to 100 percent of students reimbursed at the free rate).

School Food Programs includes the following programs:

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