Schools could more easily provide free meals under U.S. agency rule

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack takes part in a news conference

By Leah Douglas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Schools across the country could more easily serve free breakfast and lunch to millions of children under a proposed rule change announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

President Joe Biden's administration has committed to ending hunger in the U.S. by 2030.

Under the USDA's Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), schools with 40% or more of their students enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a food assistance program, can receive federal funding to provide free meals without students submitting individual applications.

The rule announced Wednesday would lower that threshold from 40% to 25%, expanding the potential reach of the CEP to 9 million additional students across 20,000 schools, the USDA said.

That could result in more students accessing free meals with less stigma and schools cutting down on administrative costs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

"This program offers many, many benefits," he said.

About 33,000 schools serving 16 million students currently participate in the CEP, Cindy Long, administrator of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, said on the call.

Biden's 2024 budget includes $15 billion over 10 years to support expansion of the provision, USDA said.

Congress must approve the budget. Changes to nutrition programs often spark partisan debate among lawmakers. Some Republicans have in recent months floated cuts to SNAP as part of ongoing negotiations over the debt ceiling and farm bill, which is up for renewal this year.

"I’m sure we will hear comments from appropriators in terms of our proposal, and we’ll be happy to try to respond to questions that they have," Vilsack said.

The USDA is collecting public comments on the proposed rule for 45 days.

(Reporting by Leah Douglas; editing by Jonathan Oatis)