Factors Associated with Universal Free School Meal Provision Adoption among US Public Schools

Published:August 02, 2021DOI:



      The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows high-poverty schools participating in US Department of Agriculture meal programs to offer universal free school meals. Emerging evidence suggests benefits of CEP for student meal participation, behavior, and academic performance. Although CEP became available nationwide in 2014, in school year 2019–2020, one third of eligible schools were not participating.


      This study evaluates which school, district, and state factors are associated with CEP participation.


      Cross-sectional study comparing CEP-participating with eligible nonparticipating schools to assess the relationship between CEP participation and school, district, and state factors.


      US public schools eligible for CEP in school year 2017–2018 (n = 42,813).

      Main Outcome Measures

      CEP participation.

      Statistical Analyses Performed

      Penalized regression variable selection methods to determine which factors contribute information to the model. Generalized logistic regression to predict odds of CEP participation unadjusted and adjusted for each factor in the full sample and in stratified analyses by whether a state was part of the CEP phase-in period (early vs late implementing states).


      In the full sample, adjusted odds of CEP participation were greater in states where CEP had been available longer (odds ratio [OR], 1.50; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.34, 1.67). In late implementing states, adjusted odds of CEP participation were higher in schools with more students directly certified for free meals (OR in schools with 80%–89% vs 30%–39% directly certified: 19.32; 95% CI, 12.98, 28.76), Title I schools (OR, 1.85; 95% CI, 1.55, 2.21), and urban schools (OR suburban vs urban, 0.46; 95% CI, 0.36, 0.59). Differences by school level, enrollment, district size, student race/ethnicity, and geographic region also existed.


      Findings may help advocates, state agencies, and policymakers understand potential barriers to adoption and guide research exploring effective strategies to promote uptake. Future research should use qualitative and longitudinal designs to explore barriers to adoption, including cost and state and local policies.


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service
        Food security in the US: Key statistics & graphics.
        • Bauer L.
        The COVID-19 crisis has already left too many children hungry in America. Brookings. 2020.
        • Casey P.H.
        • Szeto K.L.
        • Robbins J.M.
        • et al.
        Child health-related quality of life and household food security.
        Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005; 159: 51-56
        • Alaimo K.
        • Olson C.M.
        • Frongillo E.A.
        • Briefel R.R.
        Food insufficiency, family income, and health in US preschool and school-aged children.
        Am J Public Health. 2001; 91: 781-786
        • Alaimo K.
        • Olson C.M.
        • Frongillo E.A.
        Food insufficiency and American school-aged children’s cognitive, academic, and psychosocial development.
        Pediatrics. 2001; 108: 44-53
        • Huang J.
        • Barnidge E.
        Low-income children’s participation in the National School Lunch Program and household food insufficiency.
        Soc Sci Med. 2016; 150: 8-14
        • Bartfeld J.S.
        • Ahn H.-M.
        The School Breakfast Program strengthens household food security among low-income households with elementary school children.
        J Nutr. 2011; 141: 470-475
        • Poppendieck J.
        • Free for All: Fixing School Food in America
        1st ed. University of California Press; 2010.
        • United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service
        Community eligibility provision.
        • Food Research & Action Center
        Community Eligibility: The Key to Hunger-Free Schools School Year 2019-2020; 2020.
        • Hecht A.
        • Turner L.
        • Pollack Porter K.M.
        Impact of the community eligibility provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on Student Nutrition, Behavior, and Academic Outcomes (2011-2019).
        Am J Public Health. 2020; 110: 1405-1410
        • Cohen J.F.W.
        • Hecht A.A.
        • McLoughlin G.M.
        • Turner L.
        • Schwartz M.B.
        Universal school meals and associations with student participation, attendance, academic performance, diet quality, food security, and body mass index: a systematic review.
        Nutrients. 2021; 13: 911
        • Logan C.W.
        • Connor P.
        • Harvill E.L.
        • et al.
        Community Eligibility Provision Evaluation. United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service; 2014.
        • Rothbart M.
        • Schwartz A.E.
        • Gutierrez E.
        Paying for Free Lunch: The Impact of CEP Universal Free Meals on Revenues, Spending, and Student Health. Maxwell School Center for Policy Research; 2020.
        • Long M.W.
        • Marple K.
        • Andreyeva T.
        Universal free meals associated with lower meal costs while maintaining nutritional quality.
        Nutrients. 2021; 13: 670
        • Rogus S.
        • Guthrie J.F.
        • Ralston K.
        Characteristics of School Districts Offering Free School Meals to All Students Through the Community Eligibility Provision.
        United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2018: 28
        • School Nutrition Association
        School Meal Trends & Stats. 2019.
        • Chaudoir S.R.
        • Dugan A.G.
        • Barr C.H.I.
        Measuring factors affecting implementation of health innovations: a systematic review of structural, organizational, provider, patient, and innovation level measures.
        Implement Sci. 2013; 8: 22
        • Shah S.
        • Allison K.R.
        • Schoueri-Mychasiw N.
        • et al.
        A Review of Implementation Outcome Measures of School-Based Physical Activity Interventions..
        J Sch Health. 2017; 87: 474-486
        • Beland L.-P.
        • Oloomi S.
        Party affiliation and public spending: evidence from U.S. governors.
        Econ Inq. 2017; 55: 982-995
      1. The Hunger-Free Schools Act of 2015; Maryland HB 965.; 2015.
      2. Hecht A. Universal Free School Meals: Implementation of the Community Eligibility Provision and Impacts on Student Nutrition, Behavior, and Academic Performance [dissertation]. Published online May 2020.

        • United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service
        FNS Regional Offices.
        • Ollinger M.
        • Guthrie J.
        Economies of Scale, the Lunch-Breakfast Ratio, and the Cost of USDA School Breakfasts and Lunches. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
        • Ollinger M.
        • Ralston K.
        • Guthrie J.
        School Foodservice Costs: Location Matters. United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.
        • May L.
        • Standing K.
        • Chu A.
        • Gasper J.
        • Riley J.
        Special Nutrition Program Operations Study: State and School Food Authority Policies and Practices for School Meals Programs School Year 2011-12. United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service; 2014.
        • National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education
        Common Core of Data. 2020.
        Date accessed: May 27, 2020
        • Vericker T.
        • Fortuny K.
        • Finegold K.
        • Ozdemir S.B.
        Effects of Immigration on WIC and NSLP Caseloads. 2016.
        • Greenberg E.
        • Toward an Accurate Count of Low-Income Students
        Urban Institute; 2019.
        • US Department of Agriculture
        School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study. 2019.
        • Carson J.
        • Many Eligible Children Don’t Participate in School Nutrition Programs
        University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy; 2015.
        • Food Research & Action Center
        Understanding the Relationship Between Community Eligibility and Title I Funding. 2019.
        • Food Research & Action Center
        Community Eligibility (CEP) Database. 2019.
        • Glander M.
        • Documentation to the 2015–16 Common Core of Data (CCD) Universe Files
        National Center for Education Statistics. 2017.
      3. James G. Witten D. Hastie T. Tibshirani R. An Introduction to Statistical Learning: With Applications in R. Springer, 2013
        • Stata 16
        StataCorp LLC.
      4. HB 5113: Certain School Boards; Student Meals; Participation in the Community Eligibility Provision.; 2020.
        • United States Department of Agriculture
        Direct Certification in the National School Lunch Program Report to Congress: State Implementation Progress, School Year 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. 2018.
        • United States Department of Agriculture
        SNAP Data Tables. 2021.
        • Rosenbaum D.
        SNAP Is Responding to Increased Need, Early Evidence Shows. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 2020.
        • United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service
        Updated Title I Guidance for Schools Electing Community Eligibility. 2015.
        • Kneebone E.
        • Berube A.
        • Confronting Suburban Poverty in America
        Brookings Institute; 2013.
        • Turner L.
        • Guthrie J.F.
        • Ralston K.
        Community eligibility and other provisions for universal free meals at school: impact on student breakfast and lunch participation in California public schools.
        Transl Behav Med. 2019; 9: 931-941
        • Waxman E.
        • Gupta P.
        • Karpman M.
        More Than One in Six Adults Were Food Insecure Two Months into the COVID-19 Recession. Urban Institute; 2020.


      A. A. Hecht is a postdoctoral fellow, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI.


      S. A. Stuart is a professor, Department of Mental Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD.


      K. M. Pollack Porter is a professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD.