‘Now is the time’ to make school meals free for all kids, anti-hunger advocates say

All American public school children are currently able to get school meals for free, thanks to temporary waivers that allowed schools to serve free meals during the pandemic. And while those waivers look set to expire at the end of June, the pandemic has served as a trial run for making school meals permanently free for all students, regardless of income. 

Advocates are looking to build on this experience. Two states, Maine and California, have passed legislation making school meals free to all students. And at least eight more states — Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington — are considering similar measures. Meanwhile, a federal bill, the Universal School Meals Program Act, spearheaded by Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Bernie Sanders, is steadily gaining support. 

“Now is the time,” said Janet Poppendieck, a senior fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, speaking at the National Anti-hunger Policy Conference on Tuesday. The online conference, organized by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) and Feeding America, runs through March 17. 

Transitioning back to a pre-pandemic system where some students pay full price for meals, while others pay a reduced fee or nothing at all, will be difficult for schools to stomach, Poppendieck said. “They’ve had a taste of serving all children, of welcoming all children to the school table,” she said. 

School meals programs have the potential to end hunger, increase academic achievement and foster social solidarity, Poppendieck said. But she said the program’s structure sabotages these goals in multiple ways: Income guidelines are too low, leaving many families without help, and the certification process is complicated and ripe for errors. Stigma is another problem, she said. “Kids did not want to be seen eating school lunch because other people would think they were poor,” she said. 

But there is mounting evidence that making school meals free for everyone helps improve academic achievement and decrease hunger and bullying, Poppendieck said. Since the 2011-2012 school year, “community eligibility” provisions have allowed schools and districts with high poverty rates to automatically offer free meals to all students. She cited recent research that showed that students who began receiving free meals through the provision had improved math and reading scores. And, offering free meals to all students likely increased food security, since many students who’d previously qualified for free meals, but hadn’t taken part in the program, began eating school meals, she said.

“The predictions we’ve been making for years are being proven true by research,” Poppendieck said.

Maria Martirosyan, a legislative assistant for Rep. Omar, said the Minnesota legislator’s background as a nutrition educator has shaped her work in congress. The Universal School Meals Program Act, which she first introduced in 2019 and then again in 2021, would make sweeping changes to school nutrition programs such as permanently making meals free to all students, increasing meal reimbursement rates for schools, incentivizing local food procurement and providing summer meals to students and summer EBT for low-income kids. 

The legislation, and the ideas behind it, are gaining support on both sides of the aisle, Martirosyan said. “The conversation has changed drastically,” she said. 

Support for expanding access to school meals is also strong among the general public, said Guy Molyneux, a partner with Hart Research Associates who recently conducted a survey on the issue of universal school meals for FRAC. The online poll surveyed 1,202 voters in late January. Two thirds of respondents said they supported expanding school meals to more students: 35 percent supported making meals free for all students, while 31 percent favored raising the income limits so that more students would qualify. 

“There’s really no constituency for shrinking these programs today,” Molyneux said.