A pandemic experiment in universal free school meals gains traction in the states
Students getting their l lunch at a primary school. Photo by Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
WASHINGTON — Every public school kid in the United States was eligible for free school meals during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of family income, thanks to the federal government.
While that’s now ended, a growing number of states across the country are enacting universal school meal laws to bolster child food security and academic equity. With little prospect of action soon in Congress, the moves by states show an appetite for free school meals for all developing beyond Washington.
Nine states have passed a temporary or permanent universal school meal policy in the past year. Another 23 have seen legislation introduced during the past three years, according to recent data from the Food Research and Action Center.
”As a former teacher, I know that providing free breakfast and lunch for our students is one of the best investments we can make to lower costs, support Minnesota’s working families, and care for our young learners and the future of our state,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, said when signing his state’s universal school meals bill on March 17.
“When we feed our children, we’re feeding our future,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, when she signed her state’s policy into law on March 28.
How it works
The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program authorize the Department of Agriculture to subsidize school meals for low-income students. Schools are reimbursed for meals that meet federal nutrition standards, and incorporate U.S.-grown foods.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government enacted a policy that ensured access to school meals for all public school students, which teachers and families say supported kids’ wellbeing during the health crisis.
Yet the program was sunsetted in 2022, given objections to its roughly $29 billion estimated annual price tag and a desire among conservative members of Congress to “go back to normal.”
“There are pieces to this program that are badly damaged,” said Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Senior Research Fellow in Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “You’re not solving anything by making it a universal program.”
Under current federal law, only students with families who have incomes at 130% of the poverty line or below are eligible for entirely free school meals. That would be a family of four that makes roughly $36,000 or less.
Families with income between 130% and 185% above the poverty line pay a reduced price for meals. Students whose families have income above 185% of the poverty line must pay full price. (Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the income levels for families of students eligible for free school meals.)
Policy experts say that despite growing interest in some states, federal universal school meals legislation would be a non-starter in the current Congress, where Republicans in the House majority aim to reduce federal spending.
States led by Republicans might be less eager to move ahead as well, with bills in those states stalled in committee or failing to pass by slim margins. Costs for the program range from $30 million to $40 million annually in states like Maine, to $400 million over two years in Minnesota.
Of the nine states that have passed universal school meals, all have Democratic majorities of both chambers of state legislatures and control the governor’s office.
The last legislation introduced at the federal level was the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, sponsored by Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The bill failed to make it out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
“I certainly don’t have a whole lot of hope with Republican control of the House that they’ll do much, in those terms,” said Marcus Weaver-Hightower, professor of educational foundations at Virginia Tech.
Still, there is optimism about universal school meals over the long term at the federal level, after the trial run during the pandemic.
“The resistance isn’t as loud as it might seem,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat and advocate for universal school meals. “I know it’s going to be able to move with urgency because the community outside of the Capitol bubble is moving with urgency, talking about this more and more.”
An experiment in the lockdown
As communities locked down in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economy weathered mass layoffs, the Department of Agriculture authorized the provision of free school meal waivers for all students, and raised the per-meal reimbursement rate.
The program grew to support roughly 50 million students during the health crisis. Food-insecure households with children decreased by 2.3 percentage points between 2020 and 2021, according to the USDA.
“It was kind of a natural experiment,” Weaver-Hightower said. “Everybody was suddenly getting them for free.”
Jeanne Reilly, the director of school nutrition at Windham Raymond Schools in Maine, recalled that when schools were closed, school nutrition teams got creative. Lunch staff were meeting parents in parking lots to distribute meals.
Yet as vaccines proliferated at the end of 2021, and students returned to school, the federal universal meals program hit turbulence.
Conservative members of Congress, including Kentucky Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, refused to extend the universal school meal policy as part of the omnibus spending bill passed in March 2022.
The bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022 passed by Congress in June 2022 allowed some states to extend their free meal programs, and provided additional money for reimbursements. Yet school nutritionists say the effects of sunsetting the waivers are lingering.
Cohen said that experts now are starting to hear about the return of school meal debt, which can force schools to forgo educational expenses in paying the USDA for delinquent meal costs. A recent School Nutrition Association survey found that 847 school districts have racked up more than $19 million in debt from unpaid lunches.
School participation in the meal programs also dropped to 88% in fall 2022, compared to 94% in March 2022, according to a study from the Department of Education.
States take action
Five states have passed laws that will provide free universal school meals in the 2023-2024 school year and beyond, including Minnesota, New Mexico, Maine, California and Colorado.
Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are providing universal school meals for the 2022-2023 school year, through a combination of federal and state funds. Nevada is providing universal school meals through the 2023-2024 school year.
Twenty-three other states have seen universal school meals legislation introduced in the past three years, including Arizona, Louisiana, Montana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a professor of nutrition and leader of the Arizona State Food Policy and Environmental Research Group, said offering free school meals reduces the social stigma for low-income students, increasing participation and nutritional benefits for those who need it most.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the Jean Mayer Professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, cited a Journal of the American Medical Association study which found school meals are among the most nutritious meals students eat anywhere.
Other studies have shown that universal school meals produce positive overall effects on school attendance, and academic performance across grades.
Tlaib says she benefited firsthand from participating in the National School Lunch Program when she was a kid, while growing up with 13 siblings, an immigrant father who worked the night shift at Ford Motor Company and a mother who was still learning English.
“As our family grew larger, I’ll tell you that I don’t think my family would have ever been able to provide us food for lunch,” Tlaib said. “When you have a parent tell me that’s the only place their child eats twice a day, this is so incredibly important.”
Others say that the policy would be a waste of taxpayer dollars, and push the school lunch program further from its original purpose.
“Free and reduced price school meals are for those who need the assistance,” said Republican Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who declined to extend universal school meal waivers in a stopgap spending bill in September, in a statement to States Newsroom.
“Universal school meals isn’t about increasing access for hungry children — it’s about taxpayers subsidizing meals for those who do not need it.”
Butcher, of the Heritage Foundation, said that the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs are on the high-priority list for the government watchdog Government Accountability Office, accounting for over $1 billion in untracked spending as food waste grows in school lunchrooms.
Baylen Linnekin, a food policy analyst for the libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, said that nutritional quality of the meals has improved “slightly” since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
But he said two-thirds of the costs of the program go to overhead expenses, and with the variety of diets and allergies emerging, he said there is “no way” one school meal program can account for the needs of all children.
Origins of free school meals
In the build-up to World War I and World War II, a significant number of men who signed up for military service were disqualified due to nutritional deficiencies. This, combined with economic pressures of the Great Depression, fueled the development of federally-subsidized meal programs.
President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, formally enshrining the National School Lunch Program.
“The preamble is that it has a military function: the nation’s defense of the welfare of children, and the protection of our agricultural system,” Weaver-Hightower said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans in Washington began denouncing inefficiencies in the meals program, and pushing policies that dropped participation by millions of children.
It wouldn’t be until 2010 that the idea of nutritious school meals for all children gained steam, when Congress ultimately passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.
The legislation enacted more rigorous nutrition standards to combat the rise of childhood obesity, while boosting federal meal reimbursement rates. It also created the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, which allowed schools with more than 40% of students on means-tested federal nutrition programs to offer free meals to all students.
While the CEP has improved outcomes for students in low-income areas, nutrition experts say the provision has not eliminated child food insecurity.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there are a lot of families that are not eligible for free school meals that are struggling,” said Juliana Cohen, director of the Center for Health Inclusion, Research and Practice at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.
Some things states and localities can do
While Congress may not act on universal school meals, policy minds said there are numerous alternatives for state and local governments to improve student food access.
Cohen said Arizona just got rid of its reduced-price tier for school meals in 2022, folding it into the free lunch tier.
Mozaffarian said he believes the best return on investment at the federal level is by expanding the Community Eligibility Provision, so public schools could provide free meals to all students if they have 25% of their students or more on means-tested nutrition assistance.
He added that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed this change earlier this year.
Mozaffarian also suggested increasing the reimbursement rate for low-income schools, as well as improving federal school lunch nutrition standards. The doctor also recommended investing in scratch kitchens, where chefs make food from fresh ingredients, at low-income schools.
Butcher suggested using the money for universal school meals to create education savings accounts, which allow parents to “design” their child’s educational experience.
Reilly noted that she hopes to see a federal universal school meal legislation, because “everyone needs it.”
“I do think it’s feasible in the next five or 10 years federally,” Mozaffarian said.
Tlaib said that we as a society have a “moral obligation” to ensure students do not worry about where their next meal comes from.
“Something like this — something that our country can afford — we should do it,” Tlaib said. “There should be no hesitation.”
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