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Eligibility for Free Meal Benefits in Head Start

Nutrition Services Division Management Bulletin

Purpose: Policy, Beneficial Information

To: School Nutrition Program Sponsors

Number: USDA-SNP-08-2008

Attention: Food Service Director

Date: October 2008

Subject: Automatic Eligibility for Free Meal Benefits Extended to All Children Enrolled in Head Start

Reference: United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, SP-23-2008, SP 34-2008, CACFP-07-2008, CACFP 10-2008, SFSP-06-2008, SFSP 09-2008

This Management Bulletin (MB) provides guidance regarding amendments to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (NSLA) that extend automatic eligibility for free meal benefits, including free milk and snacks (through the Special Milk Program and Meal Supplements Under the National School Lunch Program), to all children enrolled in Head Start and participating in Child Nutrition Programs. On December 12, 2007, the President signed the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 (Public Law 110-134) which contains several significant revisions to the Head Start program, including amendments to the eligibility criteria in section 645 of the Head Start Act (42 U.S.C. 9840). Public Law 110-134 also amends sections 9(b)(12)(A)(iii) and 17(c)(5) of the NSLA to correspond with the new eligibility criteria.


Head Start primarily serves children from families with household incomes at or below the federal poverty level. However, a small proportion of children in families with household incomes above the poverty level may be served. In the past, only those children who were income eligible for Head Start were considered automatically eligible for free meals in the Child Nutrition Programs. In addition, siblings of Head Start enrolled children could be claimed at the same eligibility determination as their brothers and sisters.

Public Law 110-134

Public Law 110-134 makes any child enrolled in Head Start automatically eligible for free meals without further application or eligibility determination. Therefore, even a child who is not from a household with an income at or below the poverty level is automatically eligible for free meals if they are enrolled in Head Start. However, it is no longer allowable to also claim siblings of Head Start as eligible for free meals based on the eligibility of the sibling enrolled in Head Start. Siblings of Head Start enrolled children are not automatically eligible for free meals. When Congress extended Head Start eligibility to all enrolled children, it amended the law by replacing the word “family,” with “enrolled children.” In order for Head Start Centers to claim siblings of Head Start enrolled children, they must take income applications.

All reimbursable meals, milk, and snacks served to children enrolled in Head Start may be claimed at the free rate. Institutions and school food authorities (SFAs) may submit claims to claim all reimbursable meals, milk, and snacks served to Head Start enrollees that were not previously claimed at the free rate. All such reimbursable meals served on December 12, 2007, and beyond may be claimed.

If you have any questions regarding this management bulletin, please request contact information for your Field Services Unit Child Nutrition Consultant at 916-445-0850 or 800-952-5609, or you may contact your School Nutrition Programs (SNP) specialist. You may find a list of contact information for your SNP specialist in the Download Forms section of the Child Nutrition Information and Payment System (CNIPS).

Questions:   Nutrition Services Division | 800-952-5609
Last Reviewed: Friday, January 21, 2022
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