What families lost when the US lost universal free school meals
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, federal policymakers acted quickly and decisively to make school meals available to all children at no charge.
This policy remained in effect for two and a half years. It was a game-changer.
Across the country, school nutrition staff reported numerous benefits in the Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC) Large School District Report, including removing the stigma from program participation and eliminating school meal debt to the benefit of both families and school districts. The policy also helped address household food insecurity, which rose significantly due to COVID-19 and allowed an additional 10 million students to eat free meals at school each day.
Unfortunately, Congress let the policy expire in June. As a result, families were left scrambling and confused as they started the new school year unprepared to submit school meal applications — some for the first time if their child was not enrolled in the K–12 system prior to the pandemic.
As the leaders of two national nonprofit organizations dedicated to the health and well-being of children — and, more personally, as parents ourselves — we remain astounded at Congress’ unwillingness to act given the record of success. We know of no child, family, or school helped by this decision. But we know that many have been hurt and are still attempting to get back on their feet following potential job loss, caregiver loss, and other challenges caused by the pandemic.
A parent who participated in FRAC’s story collection initiative told us “My children have been getting free meals — lunch and breakfast — for the past two years. Now I have to pay for both boys every day, which is roughly around $200 a month … $200 doesn’t seem like much to some, but when you live paycheck to paycheck, it can be an added expense.”
For many children, school meals are a necessity, not a luxury; they can provide nearly half of daily calories and are often the most nutritious meals children receive. We have seen the benefits of easier access for families; now we are witnessing the perils of taking that access away.
A food services program coordinator from Connecticut who participated in the story collection initiative said, “The free meal waivers that were implemented in 20-21 and 21-22 were a great benefit to the families we serve. In a high-cost-of-living state such as Connecticut, the federal income guidelines for free and reduced-price meals are nowhere near sufficient to meet the needs of families struggling to pay rapidly increasing rent, healthcare costs, childcare expenses, utilities, food, and other basic necessities.”
A student in a family of four that earns up to $36,075 (130 percent of the federal poverty line) qualifies for free school meals this school year. But that figure doesn’t take into account cost of living differences, which can vary dramatically across states or regions. More importantly, that figure is well below the cost of living for a family of four in every state.
Some states have stepped in to fill the void. Colorado residents just voted to make healthy school meals for all permanent, joining California and Maine. While Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont passed legislation to extend the availability of free school meals for the 2022-2023 school year. Similar legislation is pending in several other states.
A food service coordinator in Mesa County, Ariz., told us in the story collection initiative that “Covid provided a glimpse of healthy school meals for all students. School cafeterias free of stigma, students receiving local and statewide sourced foods, higher levels of learning, and decreased hunger.”
When school meal programs reach their full potential, this in turn, fuels every child’s potential. Sadly, we are moving in the opposite direction.
School meal debt, which disappeared during the pandemic, has returned with a vengeance. In some places, food that has been served is being taken away from students who don’t have enough money in their accounts, and the shame and stigma felt by students who cannot afford a school lunch will only exacerbate the mental health challenges faced by so many right now.
Research documents that healthy school meals for all students leads to lower food insecurity, healthier diets, improved academic performance, and more revenue for schools. We are falling far too short. And there is no excuse when we live in the world’s wealthiest nation. Parents, educators and food service providers can be found in every congressional district in the country.
The question before us is whether our leaders will listen to them and act as decisively as they did in 2020. They made the right choice then, in a moment of crisis; they should make the right choice again today.
Congress must take bold action now in any end-of-year spending package to support children, families and schools by expanding community eligibility and allowing for Medicaid direct certification to enable schools to offer free meals to all students. It’s time to prioritize our nation’s children, families and schools and make free school meals a permanent part of the school day. Congress, join us in raising your hand for healthy school meals for all.