Feds approve waivers for universal school meals

Written by: Stephanie Perez-Carrillo
Date Posted: April 30, 2021

Anti-hunger advocates everywhere celebrated a huge advocacy win last week when the USDA announced free meals would be available for all kids in the 2021-22 school year. This announcement, coupled with retroactive issuance of Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) benefits through July, means that kids and families will have access to nutritious meals through the summer and into the fall. 


The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) have been hard at work to ensure every eligible child receives the P-EBT benefit. The program, which is currently set to expire next month, will still be issuing benefits retroactively for eligible students through July. Families can receive up to $136 for remote learners per month, or $81 for eligible hybrid remote learners based on eligibility determinations.  

Only half of eligible students (180,000) received the benefit when the first issuance occurred last fall. To ensure all eligible students receive the benefit, CDHS and CDE are hosting weekly townhalls to inform districts of the data they must provide for each eligible student in order to issue payments. The state will also be launching a call center to help with P-EBT issues in mid-May, which should help a lot of families who need guidance and support in the process. 

Hunger Free will also be hosting a webinar to share details of the new plan. You can register for the webinar here. 

School meals in the summer and fall 

School meals are now the highest-quality food consumed by most American kids – and gaps in access to quality food have narrowed, improving health equity. The recently-announced federal waivers do three important things to improve access to school food. First, they extend the period for schools to provide meals to all students through next year with the approval of the Summer Seamless Option (SSO). The SSO reduces burdensome data collection and provides free meals for all. Secondly, the waivers include a provision to increase the reimbursement rate for each meal served to match the Summer Food Service Program rates of $4.32 for lunch and $2.46 for breakfast, providing much needed financial support to school food operators to sustain staffing and current food distribution efforts. Lastly, the waivers allow caregivers to pick up meals on behalf of their children.  

School food providers are hard at work continuing their operations and ensuring that kids who are eligible apply and are enrolled to receive these benefits.  

Looking ahead 

The President’s recently announced American Families Plan builds on these efforts to address childhood hunger. If passed, the plan would: 

  • Expand Summer EBT to the 29 million students eligible to receive free and reduced-price school meals during the school year, and make the program permanent 
  •  Increase the number of high-poverty schools and elementary schools participating in community eligibility, which would help schools and school districts offer free school meals to all children 
  • Make it possible for children who receive Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to be automatically eligible for free school meals 
  • Provide $1 billion for a healthy foods initiative to build upon the improved school nutrition standards, including offering support and enhanced reimbursement rates for schools meeting higher standards.     

Visit the P-EBT benefits page here for approximate P-EBT issuance dates. The complete list of waivers can be found here. You can read more about the anti-hunger provisions of the American Family Plan here. 

Stephanie Perez-Carrillo

About Stephanie Perez-Carrillo

Stephanie works as a Policy Analyst for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Prior to joining the Children’s Campaign, she worked as a Public Policy Fellow at The Women’s Foundation of Colorado – where she found her love and passion for policy work. Before diving into the policy world, Stephanie served as a Teach for America Corps Member in South Carolina, teaching high school and middle school math. Early on while obtaining her degree in Marketing from Florida International University, she worked in health care as a Patient Advocate and Unit Secretary. When she is not working, you can typically find her at a coffee shop, hanging out with friends, or engaging in some type of outdoor activity.