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Determine Program Eligibility

Determine Program Eligibility

School Meal Eligibility is determined at the district level by households completing a free or reduced-price application. Households can also be automatically eligible for free school meals through direct certification.

Qualifying students as eligible for free or reduced-price school meals helps to increase access to healthy meals, which supports their health and academic performance.

School Meal Eligibility Overview

Sponsors must provide, collect, and determine student eligibility for meal benefits using household income applications or via direct certification. Sponsors are reimbursed for meals served to students based on the USDA established reimbursement rates for each eligibility category: free, reduced-price or paid meals. 

For the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, all disclosure requirements for release of student eligibility for non-meal program needs will apply. Public school districts operating National School Lunch Program must report free and reduced-price eligibility totals for the annual At-Risk/Free Lunch October Count.

Best practices to encourage families to provide household income information:

  • Provide consistent and clear communication on how families can apply
  • Promote online application as a component in online school registration
  • Include application and return instructions in Friday folders
  • Mail paper applications with pre-paid return envelopes or designate a drop-off point
  • Hold office hours for application assistance
  • Directly certify students and extend eligibility to household members to the greatest extent possible
  • Use marketing materials to incentivize applying

Student Eligibility Carryover

For up to 30 operating days into the new school year (or until a new eligibility determination is made, whichever comes first) an individual student’s free or reduced-price eligibility status from the previous year will remain effective. When the carryover period ends, unless the household is notified that their children are directly certified or the household submits an application that is approved, the student’s meals must be claimed at the paid rate.

In the event a district is unable to use prior year carryover documentation because the pupil enrollment count date does not fall within the first 30 days of school, the district may request a variance waiver from the CDE to extend the 30 school day requirement as it relates to the at-risk count only.

School Meal Eligibility Letters

Districts opting into the Healthy School Meals for All program with no CEP or some CEP schools will use the following letters:

Districts opting into the Healthy School Meals for All program with all CEP schools will use the following letters:

Districts not opting into the Healthy School Meals for All program will use the following letters:

Direct Certification

Direct Certification uses approved assistance program data to automatically approve eligible students for free school meals. Colorado uses an automated online system to directly certify households that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid and the Migrant Education Program.


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Direct Certification Templates

District Liaisons

Legislation requires each district to have a child welfare liaison (CWEL), a McKinney Vento/Homeless liaison and a regional Migrant liaison. Liaisons are responsible for identifying and documenting children who qualify for the listed assistance programs. Children identified in these programs are automatically eligible for free school meals.

Migrant Education Program (MEP)

McKinney-Vento Homeless Education

Free and Reduced-Price (F&R) Application Guidance

The free and reduced-price application determines school meal eligibility based on reported information including household size and income or participation in approved assistance programs.

General Resources

Application Templates


Combination Form Templates

Only for Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) eligible districts that include both CEP and non-CEP schools.



View Trainings on Free & Reduced Price Meals

Income Verification Guidance

Verification is the process of confirming free or reduced-price meal eligibility based on income and/or assistance program information provided on applications.

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