States that Have Passed Universal Free School Meals (So Far) – *Update*

by Marissa Sheldon, MPH
free school meals

Note: This article serves as an update to this summary article previously written by Leah Butz and published in August 2023. New or updated text is provided in italics. 

Multiple states have begun to provide free school meals to all students, regardless of income, and many more are considering making the move as per proposed legislation.

California has had universal free school meals since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, having used funding from Congress in 2020 to provide free meals to all students even through unexpected school closures. The policy was then made permanent in the 2022-2023 school year. California was the first state in the nation to pass such legislation. Both breakfast and lunch are provided for students in grades K-12 at all public and charter schools, regardless of financial circumstances. The bill also requires that “high poverty schools” adopt a provision that increases access to the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program (which provide reimbursement to schools providing meals to students below a certain income level) while simultaneously reducing paperwork and other administrative burdens at the local level.

Starting in the 2023-2024 school year, Colorado began offering public schools the option to provide universal free school breakfasts and lunches to students. Unlike the legislation passed in California and Maine, this policy is not required by all school districts, and was passed via ballot initiative. Participating public schools will be reimbursed for the full cost of all meals provided. The state statute, called Healthy Meals for All Public School Students, also includes language to “provide local food purchasing grants to eligible participating school food authorities; provide funding to participating school food authorities to increase the wages or provide stipends for individuals employed to prepare and serve food; and provide assistance to participating school food authorities through the local school food purchasing technical assistance and education grant program.” 

Public schools in Maine provide free school lunches and breakfasts, as per a bill passed by Maine lawmakers and signed by Governor Janet Mills after pandemic-era federal funding for meals ended. The permanent law took effect in the 2022-2023 school year. The bill also directs the Maine Department of Education to assist school districts in maximizing their federal reimbursement for school meals.

In August 2023, Massachusetts enacted permanent universal free school meals under Governor Maura Healey. This is to be funded by a new 4 percent tax on the state’s wealthiest residents, which was approved by voters in 2022. Twenty-six percent of the state’s public school children are food insecure, and this policy will help to end lunch shaming and improve children’s educational outcomes.

Up to $160 million in state funds can be used for free lunch and breakfast for all public school students, regardless of family income. In July 2023, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a state budget that includes funding for universal free school meals for the 2023-2024 school year, which included an additional $25 million in funding for the program. 

In March 2023, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed into law a bill providing free breakfast and lunch to students at participating schools, starting during the 2023-2024 school year. Schools that are eligible for meal reimbursement from the State of Minnesota must be participants in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Free meals are not extended to additional a la carte items or second helpings.

New Mexico
New Mexico was the fifth state to establish universal free school meals with Senate Bill 4 (the “Healthy Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act”), signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in March 2023. The bill was initially introduced by Senators Michael Padilla and Leo Jaramillo introduced in January 2023, after the Governor publicly announced her intention to establish the policy during the 2023 legislative session. Accompanying Senate Bill 4 is increased funding to improve school kitchen infrastructure and healthy meals standards that are being phased in throughout the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 school years

On June 14, 2023, Governor Phil Scott allowed a bill providing universal free school meals to become law, despite opposing it and not signing. Governor Scott opposed the bill because he argued it was unfair to raise taxes to purchase meals for children of wealthy families — the cost of the program will result in a $0.03 increase on the property tax rate. Had Governor Scott chosen to veto the bill, Vermont lawmakers had the support to override the veto.

Many other states are currently planning, drafting, discussing, or negotiating expanded free school meal legislation for the near future.

  • Arizona allocated more funding to free school meals in December 2022 — while the policy isn’t universal, this increased investment means that more students who previously were not eligible for free meals are now able to receive them.
  • Connecticut intended to provide universal free school meals during the 2022-2023 school year, but funding (through the American Rescue Plan) ran out a few months into the year and resumed in February 2023. The program was extended through June 2024, and in January 2024, lawmakers introduced HB 5510 to continue the temporary program through 2025. 
  • Delaware’s House Bill 125, to provide free school meals to all students regardless of income, was introduced in April 2023 and cleared its first committee vote on March 7, 2024.
  • In Hawaii, a bill to implement universal free meals at all public and public charter schools starting during the 2023-2024 school year has been introduced in the Hawaii House of Representatives.
  • Illinois
    The Illinois House and Senate both passed the Healthy School Meals for All Program to provide universal free school meals to public school students, to be overseen by the State Board of Education. The bill was approved by Governor JB Pritzker on August 11 but it did not receive the funding needed to bring the policy to fruition. The General Assembly must include a $209 million appropriation in the Spring 2024 legislative session in order to fund universal free school meals in the FY2025 budget.  
  • Iowa saw the introduction of SF303, which would require public schools in the state to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, funded through the State Department of Education.
  • Louisiana saw the introduction of HB282 by Representative Kyle M. Green, which in its original text, would have provided free school meals to all public school students. However, amended versions of the bill included eligibility requirements for students to receive free meals.
  • Maryland provided free school meals throughout the 2023-2024 school year. In January 2024, HB696 was introduced to allow all students attending schools that participate in the federal School Breakfast Program or the National School Lunch Program to have the option to receive a free meal every day. This bill would require $180 million in funding and, if passed, would go into effect in the fall of 2025. 
  • Bills in the House and Senate have been introduced in Missouri to “provide each student enrolled in such public school with one free breakfast and one free lunch each day such student attends classes in such public school.”
  • A bill was introduced in Montana to “eliminate costs to students for school meals.” However, the bill died in May 2023.
  • In Nebraska, a bill was introduced in 2021 to adopt the “Hunger-Free Schools Act,” which would provide universal free school breakfasts and lunches. However, it was postponed indefinitely in April 2022, and was introduced again in January 2023. 
  • Nevada used funding from the American Rescue Plan to provide universal free school meals during the 2022-2023 school year, and has approved additional funding to continue the program into the 2023-2024 school year. Governor Joe Lombardo vetoed Assembly Bill 319 that would have extended funding. 
  • New Jersey saw the introduction of a bill that “requires schools to universally provide free meals to all students” in February 2022, but did not pass during the 2022 session. In January 2024, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation to expand eligibility criteria for participation in school meal programs, which made more than 60,000 families newly eligible, a step closer to universal access.
  • New York City, Albany, Rochester, and Yonkers are among the municipalities in New York that offer universal free school meals. While a bill was introduced in 2021 to establish universal free school meals, it has been in committee ever since. Community Food Advocates is among those supporting statewide legislation, and the policy is supported by the NY Health Foundation
  • In North Carolina, following the success of the pandemic-era federal policy, bills establishing permanent universal free school meals have been brought to the House and Senate
  • In January 2023, the North Dakota legislative branch saw two bills related to school meals: one to provide universal free school meals at public schools, and another that fights “lunch debt” stigma. The universal free school meal bill failed in March 2023, and the lunch debt bill was passed and signed by Governor Doug Burnum in April 2023. 
  • The Ohio Board of Education passed a resolution in 2022 recommending that the legislature use funding from the American Rescue Plan to establish universal free school meals. During the 2023-2024 school year, students qualifying for reduced-price school meals are able to receive them for free. In February 2024, HB408 was introduced to expand free school meals access to all students. 
  • A bill proposed in Oklahoma would raise the income threshold for families to be eligible for free meals. While this would not be a universal policy, it would grant free meals to an additional 151,000 students. However, it has been stalled in the Oklahoma Senate since March 2023.
  • In the Oregon House, a bill is currently in committee to establish universal free school meals.
  • Pennsylvania provided universal free school breakfast during the 2023-2024 school year while bills establishing universal free school meals (including lunch) are currently in committee in the House and Senate.
  • In Rhode Island, where about 62 percent of school meals are either free or reduced-price, HB7400 to provide universal free school meals was introduced in February 2024 and was recommended to be held for further study in March.
  • In South Carolina, a bill requiring that all “eligible” schools provide universal free meals was introduced in January 2023.
  • South Dakota’s HB1074 to increase free school lunch eligibility was rejected in January 2024.
  • Tennessee saw a first attempt at passing universal free school meals in 2022, but the bill was not passed during the 2022 legislative session. SB 0208/HB0255, introduced in January 2023, failed in the Subcommittee of Education Administration in March 2024.
  • In Virginia, SB283, which would provide free school meals for all public school students, has passed in the Senate as of March 8, 2024. 
  • Washington State, HB1238, which will increase access to free school meals (although not universal) was signed into law on May 9, 2023, and will go into effect in the fall of 2024. HB2058 was introduced in January 2024 to provide universal free school meals for public schools. 
  • In Washington, D.C., a bill to implement universal free meals and snacks in public school, public charter schools, and participating private schools students has been introduced to the Council of the District of Columbia. According to the D.C. Food Policy Council, this would cost about $8 million each year.
  • In the Wisconsin State Assembly, a bill establishing universal free school meals for both public and private schools was introduced in 2021, but failed to pass in 2022.

States that have not yet introduced bills or formed coalitions in favor of healthy school meals for all students, based on January 2024 data from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC):

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • New Hampshire
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

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