WASHINGTON – Today, Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (CT-05), Vice-Ranking Member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the School Modernization and Efficient Access to Lunches for Students (MEALS) Act with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (MN-05), who also serves on the committee. The School MEALS Act will streamline the approval process for students in need of free school meals, increase community eligibility, reduce administrative work and address unpaid meal debt.

“When children are in school, they should be focused on learning, not worrying about how they will eat that day,” said Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (CT-05). “There are so many students who would benefit from free meals but cannot access them because of bureaucratic red tape. The School MEALS Act will streamline direct certification and community eligibility, opening the door to keep students in high-need school districts fed and prepared for success.”

“I’m so proud that Minnesota and 8 other states have taken the critical step of enacting free school meals for all public school students, regardless of family income. Now we must make this a reality for every state in this country.  As someone who has worked in nutrition education and experienced hunger firsthand, I know how important it is that students have access to healthy, nutritious meals at school. In one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we have a moral obligation to ensure no child is turned away from receiving a meal they need but cannot afford,” said Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (MN-05).

A companion bill will be introduced in the Senate by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA).

“Millions of children are struggling not knowing where their next meal is coming from. When students are hungry in the classroom, their ability to concentrate and academic performance decreases,” said Senator Casey (D-PA). “This School MEALS Act will set our children up for success by taking down the barriers that prevent schools from offering free meals to students and tackling food insecurity.

Direct certification and the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) are two critical school meal simplification tools that work to ensure the most vulnerable children have access to free school meals. Through direct certification, school districts use data matching procedures to approve eligible students without a school meals application. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows high-need school districts to offer meals at no charge to all students and eliminates the need for school meal applications.

To ensure all eligible children benefit from direct certification, the School MEALS Act

  • Provides $25 million for Direct Certification Improvements –$22 million in grant funding would support states in improving their direct certification processes and $3 million would support Department of Agriculture technical assistance activities.
  • Designates $2 million to Support the Direct Certification of Native American Children – The legislation sets aside $2 million of the funds provided for improvement grants to assist tribal organizations in establishing mechanisms for direct certification.
  • Expedites Performance Progress – If states do not directly certify at least 95 percent of children living in households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, they must develop a continuous improvement plan (CIP). The legislation would require states to implement their improvement measures within three years.

To strengthen CEP adoption and implementation, the School MEALS Act

  • Eliminates the June 30 CEP Application Deadline– It elects CEP for the upcoming school year. Creating an artificial deadline creates an undue administrative burden and limits the ability of high poverty school districts to adopt the provision.
  • Expands the Eligibility Data Timeframe – Data used to determine eligibility for CEP must come from April 1 of the school year prior to implementing CEP. This legislation would expand this timeframe to the end of the prior school year, giving school districts more time to conduct data matching and gather additional documentation to ensure all identified students are accurately counted.

“The School MEALS Act will make it easier for schools to implement community eligibility and will improve direct certification,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center. "This will allow more children to experience the educational and health benefits linked to participating in school meals. We appreciate Congresswoman Hayes' leadership and are very pleased to support this bill.”

“No child should have to learn on an empty stomach. Food insecurity can be found in every community — urban, suburban, and rural — and this crisis is particularly exacerbated in our Black, brown and Indigenous communities. Since the U.S.D.A. universal school meals waivers ended, educators across the country have witnessed an alarming rise in students going hungry,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “Congress can take a big step towards fixing this crisis by expanding and improving the Community Eligibility Provision that will help provide free school meals to more students. Educators applaud Representative Hayes for leading the way with this legislation that will have a positive and lasting impact on students across the country.”

Full text of the bill can be found here.