Schools send school meal applications home at the beginning of each school year. However, you may apply for school meals any time during the school year by submitting an application directly to your school or district. You may ask for an application any time during the school year. If you're earning at or below current Income Eligibility Guidelines, you are encouraged to contact your school or district to fill out a school meal application. Applications are reviewed by local school or district officials before granting free or reduced price benefits. If you receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, all of your children who attend school automatically qualify for free school meals. Participation in other federal assistance programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) also provides automatic eligibility. Please contact your school to determine if you need to fill out an application.
If you are eligible for unemployment compensation or The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), you may also be eligible for free or reduced price school meals. State Workforce Agency Administrators should let households seeking unemployment benefits about the availability of free and reduced price school meals. Please contact your school or district for more information.
USDA Prototype Applications
USDA offers prototypes (examples) of school meal applications, as well as sample instructional documents intended to assist state and local officials in the design and distribution of their own application materials. These application prototypes meet all legal requirements and reflect design best practices identified by USDA through focus testing and other research. They are available in both paper and web-based formats and may be adapted by state or local agencies for household use.
Paper-Based Prototype Household Application
Below is the Prototype Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals, with accompanying instructions, letter to households, and other materials for state and local agencies. The prototype may be used by state and local agencies as an example when designing a new application packet. The current prototype design was first launched in SY 2023 and is the result of a years long project to revise the prototype to make the application process easier for households and school officials, as well as more accurate.
Thanks to helpful feedback from state and local officials, the current prototype features a number of customer service-oriented adjustments intended to improve its usefulness. Furthermore, in July 2016, USDA published foreign language translations of the prototype and its instructional materials. The translated prototype applications include all documents from the English language version in a total of 49 non-English languages. Please note that the Prototype Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals and foreign language translations of the prototype will not be updated for SY 2018-19. States and SFAs can continue to use the current versions.
Resources for Households
- Prototype Household Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals (PDF) *New 2023
- Application Instructions (PDF) *New 2023
- Letter to Households (.doc) FAQs for parents/guardians
- Translated Applications
Resources for State and Local Agencies
- Prototype Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals (PDF) *New 2023
- Prototype Household Letters for State and Local Agencies (.docx)
Web-Based Prototype Household Application
USDA also offers a Web-Based Prototype Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals. With the increasing use and popularity of online applications in recent years, USDA has published its prototype web-based application design with the aim of providing timely guidance to stakeholders. Version 1.0 of the web-based prototype, released November 2016, was developed based on extensive public engagement and reflects research and data-driven design best practices. It has been structured to help ensure full and accurate household response, while maintaining an accessible and intuitive layout.
The USDA electronic prototype application is not for direct household use. If you are a parent looking to apply for school meal benefits, contact your child's school to find out where you can access their application for school meal benefits.
The electronic prototype application is intended as a model for how state and local program operators (or their designated vendors) may develop an effective and fully compliant web-based application for school meal benefits. While USDA offers both the design and code as open source publications free for all to access, these materials are not structured for direct or immediate use by households unless adapted and integrated with appropriate data management systems maintained at the state and/or local levels.
State and local program operators with questions about the Web-Based Prototype Application for Free and Reduced Price School Meals may send a message to WebApp@usda.gov.