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USDA Announces Universal Meal Service Option to Boost School Meal Participation in High-Poverty Areas

Press Release
Release No.
FNS 0001.11
Contact: FNS Press Team

Washington, DC, March 24, 2011 – USDA announced today that ten states were selected as finalists to participate in a pilot program for an innovative universal free meal service option designed to make it easier for low-income children to receive meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. The Community Eligibility Option will allow schools in high-poverty areas to provide free breakfasts and lunch to all students, using preexisting data to determine the eligibility of kids to receive free nutrition assistance. The determination is based on the percentage of households in that community who are already participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamp Program. By streamlining the eligibility and enrollment process, no additional application is required to provide much need nutrition assistance to children in need.

“Community eligibility offers innovative strategies to help ensure that children in high-poverty areas have access to the nutrition they need to learn and thrive,” said Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. “We know that if our country is going to win the future, our kids must be healthy and ready to learn so that they can reach their full potential.”

The Community Eligibility Option is among the early reforms enacted as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed by President Obama on December 13, 2010. The Act authorizes USDA to select up to three states to test the option in School Year 2011-12. The option will be offered to more states in successive years, and will be available to all states beginning School Year 2014-15.

To select states that are finalists, USDA set criteria based on the prevalence of high-poverty areas and strong Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program performance, and offered states that met these criteria the opportunity to compete for the Community Eligibility Option. The states chosen to apply for the initial year are Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia. From these ten states, three states will be selected to participate in the pilot program.

Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation authorizes USDA’s child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Summer Food Service Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The Act allows USDA, for the first time in over 30 years, the chance to make real reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs by improving the critical nutrition and hunger safety net for millions of children, and help a new generation win the future by having healthier lives. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is the legislative centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative to end childhood obesity in a generation.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) oversees the administration of 15 nutrition assistance programs, including National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, that touch the lives of one in four Americans over the course of a year. These programs work in concert to form a national safety net against hunger.