How To Apply for Free School Lunch and Breakfast Programs

Happy girl eating school lunch stock photo
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During the pandemic, Congress granted waivers to schools to allow cafeterias to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of financial need. The National School Lunch Program served meals to roughly 22.6 million children in 2020, with more than 75% of those free or at a reduced cost, according to The 19th.

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The waivers Congress granted to schools beginning in March 2020 eliminated the need for students to apply for free breakfast and lunch, and expanded programs also reimbursed families for meals missed due to pandemic-related disruptions. With the start of the 2022 school year, those waivers have ended and many families must once again pay for cafeteria food or pack a lunch from home. Due to food insecurity, many children don’t have the choice of bringing food from home and lack the resources to purchase food at school.

A report from the Food Research and Action Center found that 95% of the country’s largest school districts saw three key benefits from free lunch waivers:

  • Decreased student hunger
  • Made it easier for parents and guardians
  • Eliminated the stigma associated with free lunch

“Hungry children shouldn’t have to worry about meal applications or whether they have money in their account so they can eat,” Lori Adkins, president of the School Nutrition Association, told The 19th. She voiced concern that a number of families, especially single-parent households, may fall through the cracks. “There are going to be many struggling families next fall who don’t apply for meal programs or who don’t qualify for benefits,” she told the nonprofit news outlet.

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In the absence of COVID-era free meals for students, parents can now apply for free breakfast and lunch for their children, a process which can sometimes be complicated.

If you already receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), your children automatically qualify for free school meals, according to the website.

Otherwise, you’ll need to fill out an application, which will be reviewed by local school and district officials.

Forms for free lunch are typically mailed home during the final weeks of summer vacation or distributed by teachers during the first week of school. A form is likely included in a package with emergency contact forms, supply lists, a bus pass and other information you may need as your child or children return to school.

To qualify for free meals for the 2022/2023 school year, your income must not be more than 130% of the federal poverty guidelines. You may qualify for reduced-cost meals if your income does not exceed 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. A chart on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service website, located here, shows the income limits broken down weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly and annually.

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You can apply for free or reduced meals at the beginning of the school year or anytime throughout the year. If you haven’t received an application, you might find one for your school district on the district website, or you can call the school’s main office or guidance counselor to request the forms.

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About the Author

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer and content marketing specialist who geeks out about finance, e-commerce, technology, and real estate. Her lengthy list of publishing credits include Bankrate, Lending Tree, and Chase Bank. She is the founder and owner of, a travel, technology, and entertainment website. She lives on Long Island, New York, with a veritable menagerie that includes 2 cats, a rambunctious kitten, and three lizards of varying sizes and personalities – plus her two kids and husband. Find her on Twitter, @DawnAllcot.
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