Thanks to a Senate bill that became law earlier this year, thousands of Arkansas students will qualify for free school lunches.

Law No. 656 of 2023 was approved by an overwhelming majority of Senators. It benefits children from low-income families by eliminating the requirement to pay a reduced price for lunch. Alternatively, lunch is free.

If family income is less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, children qualify for free meals. This equates to an income of $39,000 for a family of four.

Children in a family of four are eligible for reduced-price meals if their income is more than $39,000 but less than $55,550 per year. This ranges from 130% to 185% of the federal poverty level. The maximum amount schools may charge for a reduced-price lunch is 40 cents.

During the height of the COVID pandemic, school meals were free for all students due to exemptions in federal nutrition regulations. Those waivers have expired and schools have returned to the guidelines they were in place before the pandemic. Some parents need to be reminded that they need to apply for their children to qualify for free lunches.

Application is free and the paperwork is not difficult to fill out. Although the academic year has already begun, it is not too late to apply. In fact, a family can apply midway through the school year if their financial situation changes. School officials are required to keep your financial information confidential.

Once the request is approved, nothing will change in the children’s list. They will still be able to choose from the same menu options as students who pay full fare for meals.

There are additional benefits to applying. Students from low-income families may be eligible for lower college application fees, and lower fees to take standardized tests such as Advanced Placement tests and college admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT. Some schools reduce the fees that may be charged for participation in athletics and other varsity activities.

Last year, about 46,000 students in Arkansas qualified for reduced-price meals. There are approximately 477,000 students in Arkansas K-12 schools.

Under Act 656, the state Department of Education must submit a report each year to lawmakers in the House and Senate education committees by Nov. 15. The report should be an overview of the state’s school feeding programs, with numbers on how many children were approved and how many were denied free lunches.

Legislative auditors will review the state’s school nutrition program by Dec. 15, 2023, to determine the extent to which school districts participate in free lunch programs.

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