Public schools have been serving all students free meals since the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted K-12 education. In March 2022, Congress rejected calls to keep up the federal funding required to sustain that practice and left that money out of a US$1.5 trillion spending package that President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11, 2022. We asked food policy expert Marlene Schwartz to explain why free meals make a difference and what will happen next.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic initially affect the school lunch program?
In March 2020, nearly all U.S. K-12 school buildings closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, quickly granted waivers to increase program flexibility and accommodate the challenges of the pandemic.
These waivers, which have been renewed several times, were critically important for school food service programs as the programs abruptly shifted away from serving meals in cafeterias and designed new distribution models to continue to feed students. Many school meal staff across the country created grab-and-go meals that families could pick up, which was particularly important in the spring of 2020 and the following school year. Another major change, which has continued during the 2021-2022 school year, is that school systems are able to serve meals to all students at no cost.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 30 million lunches were served every school day to K-12 students through the National School Lunch Program. Schools provided roughly three-quarters of those meals at reduced rates or no cost at all – with the federal government reimbursing a portion of the cost of those meals.
How much money is involved?
The program cost $14 billion in 2019, before the pandemic disrupted it.
The price of a school lunch for families without free or reduced-cost meals varies. In 2017, full-price lunches tended to run between $2.50 and $2.75 apiece.
Are all public school students still getting free meals?
Yes. However, that will no doubt change once the latest waiver expires on June 30, 2022.
Advocates urged Congress to keep funding school nutrition programs at higher levels. But Congress did not include that money in the $1.5 trillion spending bill House and Senate lawmakers passed in March 2022.
This means that next fall, most schools will have to resume the old three-tiered system where some families don’t pay at all, some receive discounted lunches, and others must pay full price.
Two states will buck that trend. California and Maine will continue providing universal school meals after the federal waiver ends due to measures their state legislators passed and governors signed into law during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the federal level, more than a dozen senators and roughly 50 members of the House of Representatives backed proposed legislation in 2021 that would permanently make school lunch free for all students, regardless of their income. There is significant support for this idea among advocates, but the future of this type of federal legislation remains to be seen.
What are the advantages of making school meals free to everyone?
In my view, the biggest advantage to universal school meals is that more students actually eat nutritious school meals. Following the regulations that emerged from the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the nutritional quality of school meals improved significantly, and a recent study found that schools typically provide the healthiest foods that children eat all day.
The research shows that making school meals free for everyone improves attendance and boosts diet quality. It also decreases the risk of food insecurity and the stigma associated with receiving a free meal. When no one has to pay, the growing problem of school meal debt is also eliminated.
There are important logistical benefits to universal school meals. Families don’t have to fill out any paperwork to establish their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. And cafeteria staff can focus on serving the meals if they don’t need to track payments.
What’s wrong with charging some students for lunch again?
You have to look at the costs and benefits of the big picture. Universal school meals provide significant benefits to the school community as a whole – most notably, reductions in food insecurity and improvements in student diet quality. I believe these benefits are far greater than the marginal cost of providing free meals to students who would otherwise pay.
The fall of 2022 is also much too early to revert back to the three-tiered system because school food programs continue to face significant challenges. Supply chain disruptions have made it harder to buy some kinds of food, including chicken and whole grain products. In addition, many schools are having trouble hiring the staff they need to prepare and serve the meals, and inflation is increasing food costs.
What do you see happening in the future?
Ideally, the federal government will reconsider this issue and support universal school meals.
If that does not happen, advocates, policymakers and researchers will be watching what happens in California and Maine. We will be able to compare what happens in these states versus those that do not continue to provide all students with free meals. My hope is that this information will inform future decisions about implementing universal school meals for all students nationally.