By USDA Food and Nutrition Service

USDA announced recently that Kentucky, Illinois and Tennessee were selected to participate in the initial year of an innovative universal free meal service option that makes 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 eliminate the use of applications and provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

“Community eligibility is a great way for schools to cut through burdensome red tape for themselves and low-income families so that children in high-poverty areas have access to the nutrition they need to learn and thrive,” said USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. “Schools will benefit from reduced paperwork, parents will not have to fill out duplicative forms, and children in need will get better access to healthy school meals.”

Under this option, schools utilize preexisting data to determine the amount of reimbursement they can claim from USDA. The determination is primarily based on the percentage of households in that community who are already participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Schools that utilize this option agree to provide meals to all children free of charge, and USDA reimburses them for the appropriate amount based on this preexisting data. Under this option, schools will still be responsible for paying the remaining difference between the Federal reimbursement amount and the total cost to operate the program.

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 Dec. 13, 2010. The Act requires the Community Eligibility Option to be phased-in over three years and authorizes USDA to select up to three states to participate in the option for the 2011-12 school year. The option will be offered to additional states in successive years, and will be available to all states beginning in 2014-15.

For the phase-in period, the law requires USDA to select states “with an adequate number and variety of schools and local educational agencies that could benefit from” the Community Eligibility option. USDA identified 10 states as eligible to apply for consideration for participation in the initial school year and, based on a review of information submitted by these states, USDA selected Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee for 2011-12.

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 more than 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’s goal 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. Visit for information about FNS and nutrition assistance programs.