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Federal free food program expands, helping more schools and students in Arizona

Mesa High School free lunch
Posted at 4:18 PM, Mar 11, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-11 21:38:19-04

MESA, AZ — On a typical school day, the cafeteria is hustling and bustling at Mesa High School. There are long lines of students waiting to get food, hundreds of students spread out sporadically across the cafeteria, students talking amongst themselves and eating; it’s the epitome of lunchtime at a high school.

One thing those students don’t have to worry about now is paying for their school meals.

The Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA allowed schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program mid-school year due to changes to some of its regulations. Previously, free meals through CEP were only given to schools where 40% or more of its students met the poverty threshold. That means these students and their families receive help through SNAP and other benefits from the government.

However, after changes, it’s now expanded to 25% of its students needing to meet the threshold, paving the way for about 3,000 school districts to be eligible to give students free meals, according to the USDA.

For Mesa Public Schools, that means more than half of its schools and programs will be able to get a free breakfast and lunch, according to Sabrina Kvavle, the district’s food services director.

Not only is the one meal per breakfast and lunch free for the students who are identified through the Arizona Department of Education, but it’s also free for all of the students at the school.

“We won't be receiving any money from students for meals. By getting more meals at the free rate, it offsets the money the students would've been paying,” Kvavle said.

This is different from the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program. Families part of that have to apply and see if they qualify based on income and household size, Kvavle said. The CEP program is for the highest-needs schools.

“This is really going to save our families a lot of money to not have to pay for school meals,” Kvavle said.

For some families, every dollar counts.

Mesa High School Principal Kirk Thomas said he was thrilled to find out his students wouldn’t have to pay for a meal for the rest of the school year.

“For us to know kids can come get a breakfast and lunch, really takes that worry and that personal need off their plate and focus on what they’re here for, which is academics,” he said.