All schools participating in our nation’s school meals programs may serve free meals to all students for the upcoming school year, not just to those qualifying via family income. Known as universal school meals, this one-year expansion is a product and recognition of the economic and social upheaval caused by COVID-19. But the value of good nutrition to children, families and schools is long-term and profound. Universal school meals should be permanent.
Our nation has a history of addressing shortfalls during periods of crisis, only to let them reaccumulate once the dust has settled. If we take that path with universal school meals, we will be repeating that predictable cycle. Ending this support would say a lot — none of it favorable — about how we prioritize the needs of children and families in America, and in particular, our commitment to undoing the damage caused by structural racism and discrimination against children and families of color. As a national health philanthropy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) believes we must take this bold step for all children and families.
Food insecurity — or inconsistent access to enough food for everyone in a household — is not a new phenomenon: for the past two decades, at least one of every 10 households in the U.S. have experienced hunger every year, with the highest rates being seen in rural areas. The pandemic and the resulting economic fallout have exacerbated the problem. While food insecurity has improved somewhat since spiking early during the pandemic, it is estimated that as many as 42 million Americans, including 13 million children, will experience food insecurity in 2021, with a disproportionate impact on families of color.
School meals are often the difference between whether or not children have enough to eat on any given day, particularly for those who may not have enough food at home. For years, schools with high percentages of students living in poverty have been allowed to serve free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision. The number of schools participating in this program has been steadily increasing for years, underscoring both the value of the program and the ongoing, detrimental impacts of food insecurity. Making universal school meals permanent should be a bedrock component of a comprehensive effort to end childhood hunger in the U.S. for good.
The benefits of universal school meals extend even further than impacts on food insecurity. Data from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that the nutrition content of school meals has improved significantly after the implementation of updated nutrition standards nearly a decade ago. In fact, school meals are often the healthiest foods children will have access to in a given day. Healthier school meals are associated with a significant decrease in the risk for obesity among children growing up in poverty: in 2018, the obesity rate among those children was 47 percent lower than it would have been without the updated nutrition standards, translating to roughly 500,000 fewer cases of obesity since the implementation of the healthier standards. Healthier meals also help children succeed academically and be at their best in the classroom.
But for millions of children deprived of in-person learning as a result of the pandemic, the lifeline of school meals suddenly snapped. Congress and USDA responded: free school meals for all are now available through June 2022, and the Pandemic-EBT program has provided families affected by school closures with additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. In the face of tremendous financial and logistical challenges, school districts responded creatively and heroically, continuing to serve and even bring meals directly to children and families affected by closures when possible.
But the health effects of food insecurity, obesity and poverty have persisted for decades, and will not be solved by temporary solutions. Our nation’s school meals programs play a crucial role in ensuring children are well-fed and have access to nutritious foods, but they also have significant imperfections. Students who qualify for free school meals often receive different meals or are forced to stand in different lines, which can lead to stigma and abuse from their peers. While it is true that school meals are not cost-prohibitive for everyone, some families struggling to afford even the cost of reduced-priced meals accrue significant debt. And schools — whose food service departments have suffered more than $2 billion in federal revenue losses since the start of the pandemic — are forced to commit limited resources to collecting and processing school meal applications. Making universal school meals permanent would spare children from being shamed, save families money and relieve schools from significant administrative and regulatory cost burdens. It is a worthy investment in the health and wellbeing of all of our children.
Healthy Eating Research, a national program office of RWJF, recently conducted a systematic review of the impacts of programs providing free school meals for all. The review, which summarized findings from nearly 50 studies conducted in the United States and internationally, found that taking that step:
- Increases the number of students participating in school meals programs in nearly all cases.
- Improves diet quality among students in the majority of circumstances, particularly with strong nutrition standards in place for fruits, vegetables, or whole grains.
- Reduces levels of food insecurity among students and families with lower incomes.
- Can have positive impacts on students’ academic achievement and school attendance.
- Does not increase students’ body mass index.
- Helps schools financially, especially schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision.
As schools reopen for in-person learning this year, we should be comforted knowing that millions of children will have access to the nutritious foods so important to their current and long-term health and academic success. But today, universal school meals are merely a temporary band-aid on a gaping wound. Whether they become a permanent fixture of our nation’s efforts to end childhood poverty and hunger, improve children’s health and help children reach their full potential and thrive is up to us.
There is no better or more important time to make the right choice.
Richard E. Besser is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twitter: @DrRichBesser. Jamie Bussel is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Twitter: @jbussel.