The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP) are together the second-largest food safety net in the United States. Second only to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in size and impact on food security, the school meals programs (NSLP and SBP combined) provide 30 million healthy and nutritious meals to children and adolescents daily. This safety net fulfills a vital basic need for many of our country’s youth, sometimes providing the only complete meals children in poverty may receive on a given day.
As schools switched to remote learning early in the pandemic, the media highlighted concerns for hungry children and featured images of long food pantry lines. To help support schools and families during the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented Universal Free Meals (UFM), allowing schools to offer meals to all students for free, regardless of family income. The USDA was also granted the authority to issue waivers to school food programs that allowed them to adjust their service models to meet the changing demands of the pandemic—such as allowing multiple meals to be picked up at one time and removing requirements for students to eat in the cafeteria.
Crucial to recognize as the US transitions away from crisis mode is that many families are still struggling to find a foothold, especially those that lost employment or loved ones. The gaps temporarily filled by the government’s response during the pandemic continue to exist for many families and children. Despite the continued economic disruption and uncertainty, the waivers used by the USDA to expand access to school meals are set to expire at the end of the 2021–22 school year. This sudden return to pre-pandemic operations will limit schools’ abilities to meet the needs of their communities and families’ abilities to access this vital safety net. Making UFM a permanent part of the toolkit to fight hunger is a necessary, effective, and achievable step.
The School Meals Program: A Promise Unfulfilled
Prior to pandemic-related USDA waivers, the NSLP operated under a three-tiered payment system where student eligibility for free, reduced, or full-price meals is based on family income. The income and paperwork requirements in this system excluded many families that could benefit. Under the current eligibility system, a household made up of a single parent with two children making $41,000 per year earns too much to qualify for reduced-price meals. Yet, it would be difficult to support a family on this income. In addition, the complicated and cumbersome applications needed to qualify for free or reduced-price meals acted as deterrents to families who do not know how to complete the application or who worry about negative consequences of sharing sensitive personal information.
Basing access to school meals on income contributed to a sense of stigma or shame for students who previously ate the free school breakfast or lunch, as they worry about being classified as the “poor kid.” This stigma can lead to increased chances of bullying and contribute to lower school meal participation rates among students who could benefit from the program the most. In addition, this stigma carries over to the food itself and hinders the perceptions of school meals, despite their improved quality since the passing of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010. Finally, the three-tiered system contributes to the issue of school meal debt and lunch shaming that has been widely discussed in the news in recent years and has been the topic of several state-level bills.
In an effort to increase participation in school meals and reduce the overall paperwork burden for schools and families, the HHFKA introduced the Community Eligibility Program (CEP). Prior to the pandemic, one in three schools in the US were participating in CEP, which allows low-income schools (defined as a school where 40 percent or more of students are categorically eligible for free or reduced-price meals) to serve free meals to all enrolled students. A key benefit of this program, similar to UFM, is that schools reduce the burden and associated costs of collecting meal eligibility applications and tracking student eligibility as they go through the lunch line. Importantly, implementation of CEP has been associated with increased participation in school meals, particularly for those students whose family income is near free meal eligibility cut-offs. The program has been shown to contribute to improved academic performance, reduced absenteeism, and improved perceptions of the school environment. While it is too soon to evaluate the overall impact of the national UFM program during the pandemic, evidence from schools implementing the CEP program shows that UFM is likely to benefit schools, students, and families.
Universal Free Meals Program
In March 2020, in response to pandemic-related school closures, the USDA was granted the authority to implement waivers allowing child nutrition programs to forgo certain program requirements to better meet the needs of at-risk students while still maintaining the health and safety of the families and staff. These waivers, which are set to expire at the end of the current school year, include allowing parents to pick up meals for children, allowing multiple meals to be picked up at one time, flexibility on nutrition standards, and importantly, providing UFM for all. Without the flexibility provided by these waivers, schools would not have been able to continue to serve meals to students who were in the highest need. The waivers allowed schools to better deal with pandemic-related safety concerns, staffing shortages, and supply chain issues. Despite these waivers, school food operations still faced dramatic decreases in student meal participation over the course of the pandemic: 4.7 percent decrease in breakfast participation and a 30.7 percent decrease in lunch participation during the 2020–21 school year, compared to the 2018–19 school year. The underuse of the program means that children and families are not benefiting from improved dietary quality and reduced food insecurity associated with the program. It also means that, even with the waivers, child nutrition programs are suffering financially from reduced federal reimbursements and increased costs of program administration.
Nutrition And Health Benefits Of School Meals
Since the implementation of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act , the nutritional quality of school meals has improved markedly. Students who participate in school meals are being offered more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Children in poverty also saw decreases in obesity prevalence with the HHFKA modifications. School meals are often more nutrient-dense than packed lunches, and the nutritional quality of foods consumed at schools is higher compared to foods consumed from other locations such as grocery stores and restaurants.
Students that come from food-insecure households are historically more likely to participate in NSLP compared to those from food-secure households (79 percent versus 49 percent). The meals offered are high in nutrient density as indicated by the Healthy Eating Index (HEI). The HEI measures how well diets compare to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, national nutrition guidelines set by USDA, and Health and Human Services intended to support healthy diets for all Americans. A higher HEI score indicates higher consumption of low-fat dairy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lower amounts of sodium, added sugars, and solid fats. The average range of HEI scores for foods not provided by schools was 55 to 57 compared to foods offered in schools that ranged from 79 to 81 (HEI scores can range from 0 to 100 with a score of 100 reflecting a diet that is in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans). These high nutrient foods are foods that are needed by all children for appropriate growth and maturation.
School meals also provide a critically important safety net that helps to reduce childhood hunger. Prior to the pandemic, 10.5 percent of households in the US were food insecure but that rate was higher in households with children (14.8 percent). Food insecurity impacts children in a variety of ways, including struggling in school with lower math and reading gains, increased risk of poor physical and mental health outcomes, and overall lower academic readiness. Estimates note that one in six children struggle with access to food, with this issue disproportionately impacting children of color. Feeding America has estimated that during 2021, one in five Black individuals may have experienced food insecurity compared to one in nine white individuals. Racial disparities existed prior to COVID-19 and continue to be exacerbated by slower financial recovery among communities of color.
Current Policy Initiatives
To address childhood food insecurity, California and Maine were the first states to pass bills granting free school meals to all students in their states (California in July 2021 and Maine in June 2021, both programs are set to start in the 2022–23 school year). Several other states have taken up this legislation in the current legislative session (including Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin). This chart from the Food Research and Action Center provides state-by-state data on current mandates, additional funding, and other legislation that is ongoing.
On the national level, two key bills have been introduced. The first, H.R. 6613 Keeping School Meals Flexible Act, seeks to extend the USDA’s authority to extend the pandemic-era waivers for another school year. The second, S. 1530 Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, would amend the current law to make breakfast and lunch available at no cost to all students. Both bills have stalled in committee.
Despite an outcry of support from antihunger and antipoverty groups urging federal legislators to extend USDA waivers issued during the pandemic for another school year, legislators have failed to include an extension of child nutrition waivers in the final version of the 2022 Omnibus Appropriations Bill. Child nutrition programs are now faced with further increased costs to carry out their programs due to pandemic-related supply chain and labor shortages. Starting as soon as July 2022, when schools are feeding students over the summer, they will no longer have the support of these critical USDA waivers. Without extending the waivers, school nutrition programs will struggle to meet the needs of the children they worked so hard to serve during the pandemic. Loss of waivers also puts school food departments at risk of incurring financial penalties—which have currently been waived—if they cannot meet pre-pandemic service and meal pattern guidelines.
The current Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, passed in 2015, allows nutrition programs to continue with their previously approved funding. Reauthorization is scheduled to begin in 2022, and with this, all programs can be revisited and improved. To address critical food security needs, Congress should take short- and long-term action. More immediate remedies include passing the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act introduced by Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in March 2022. The intent of this act is to restore expired waivers through a bipartisan bill to be included in the updated COVID-19 relief package. This action can provide much needed temporary relief through the end of the 2022–23 school year. However, it is necessary to also craft a long-term and sustainable national legislative solution. The most important step that can be taken during this reauthorization is to allow all children access to free school meals.
A permanent national UFM program such as the one supported by the USDA during the pandemic would ensure that all students receive nutritionally balanced meals to address food insecurity and improve childhood nutrition and health. By reducing the stigma and administrative burden associated with participation in the traditional school meals program, UFM increases access to healthy food for all children, including working families that hover right above the income requirements and also struggle to meet basic needs. A nationwide UFM program would provide a broader and more equitable approach to addressing food access, filling not only gaps created by the pandemic, but those that clearly existed prior to it as well. Making UFM permanent would meet a vital need, ensure that no child in the wealthiest nation in the world experiences hunger at school, and reflect the value that all children deserve our investment in their health and well-being.