A diverse group of nutrition advocates, environmentalists, medical associations, teachers unions and parent’s groups are joining forces to push Congress to make school meals free for all children, regardless of their families’ income. Until now, free school meals have been limited to children from low-income families, although rules were relaxed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s all about making sure that kids have what they need to grow and thrive,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, which is one of the members of the new Healthy School Meals for All Coalition, launched this week.
Making school meals free has a range of positive effects on students’ attendance, academic achievement and food security, FitzSimons noted. “Having lots of different voices coming together in support of healthy school meals for all definitely helps,” she said.
But the moves have been repeatedly opposed by Republican lawmakers who argue that it would be too expensive, and encourage families to become dependent on government aid.
“Kids in our public schools go hungry. It is unacceptable,” said Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, another coalition member, in a statement. “We have an obligation to our children to create welcoming, safe schools where they can thrive, and that includes making sure they have everything they need to learn, be it a new book, or breakfast.”
During the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, virtually all public school children were able to eat at school for free, thanks to federal waivers. But Congress failed to renew these waivers, so, beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, schools in most states went back to charging for meals, and offering free and reduced price meals only to students whose families met certain income guidelines.
Since then, more kids have been going hungry at school, school nutrition groups say, and the stigma attached to school meals — seen as “poor kids’ food” — has returned. This year, students have collectively racked up more than $19 million in unpaid meal debt, according to the School Nutrition Association, leading to stress for families and shortfalls for already-strapped school food programs. Concern continues to grow as SNAP benefits, which were temporarily boosted during the Covid pandemic, dropped back to previous levels in most states in February, despite rampant food inflation.
Democratic lawmakers are also trying to advance the school food issue. In March, Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Katie Porter called on Congress to include funding for universal school meals in its fiscal 2024 budget. And legislation, spearheaded by Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Bernie Sanders, that would make school meals universally free, is expected to be reintroduced in Congress in the coming days. While supporting the principle of universal school meals, not all coalition members have formally endorsed these specific proposals.
As part of its commitment to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030, the Biden administration supports a pathway to universal free meals, but has taken a gradual approach. In March, the USDA proposed a new rule that would make it easier for schools to offer free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools in poor areas to feed all kids for free. Currently, schools where at least 40 percent of students receive SNAP or other federal benefits are eligible for the provision. The proposed rule would lower that threshold to 25 percent.
In the absence of more sweeping federal action, five states – California, Colorado, New Mexico, Maine and Minnesota – have made school meals permanently free. Other states, including Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont, are offering universal free school meals this school year. But advocates say this piecemeal approach is insufficient and unjust. They say a child’s address shouldn’t determine whether or not they go hungry.
“All children deserve healthy, culturally-appropriate and free school meals,” said Jennifer Molidor, senior food campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, a coalition member, in a statement. “Every Congressperson should be pounding down the doors to ensure students have the fuel they need to learn and grow.”