‘Put kids first,’ say advocates in call for universal free school meals

On the heels of new legislation that would provide free school meals to all American children, advocates from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), American Academy of Pediatrics and American Federation of Teachers doubled down on the urgent need for action amid persistent childhood hunger and an escalating obesity crisis.

The pandemic’s disruptions to school attendance sent child hunger soaring, as kids lost access to meals they typically ate at school cafeterias and replacement measures struggled to fill the gap. But pandemic-relief policies also led to a de facto universal school meals program that will remain in place through next summer — energizing demands to make such a program permanent.

In a press call Tuesday, Crystal FitzSimons, who works on childhood nutrition programs at FRAC, said the new bill would not only help feed hungry kids, but would improve health outcomes and advance academic achievement. A universal program also would remove hurdles to access, which range from stigma around receiving free or discounted meals to language barriers. And although prior to the pandemic 22 million children were receiving free or reduced-price school meals, many in-need families do not even qualify. In order to be eligible, a family of three must make less than $29,000 a year — but in every state, a family of that size with an even higher earnings would still be considered low-income, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While recent rounds of government stimulus have brought food insecurity to its lowest levels since the pandemic began — bolstering Democrat demands for sustained federal assistance — other diet-related health consequences have come into stark relief. Childhood obesity has jumped sharply, in part due to reduced access to school meals, which are relatively healthy, and less physical activity. Advocates say legislation like that introduced last week will be critical to bringing those numbers down.

Sally Goza, immediate past president at the American Academy of Pediatrics, expressed “fear for children’s long-term health.” One member of the academy, she said, described a patient who had “gained 90 pounds in the past year, another who had gained 50 pounds,” and several who had gained 40 to 50 pounds. “We know that changes in eating patterns can lead to depression and anxiety,” Goza added, citing a dramatic increase in eating disorders — not only among teens but in children as young as 8 or 9. “They’re more severe, and starting at younger ages,” she said.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called universal school meals a critical element of school reopening — and an opportunity to create stronger classroom environments moving forward. “With game-changing results from vaccines, we are very bullish on the reopening of schools all over this country, full time,” she said. Prior to the pandemic, teachers would fill gaps in the school meal programs by “stock[ing] snacks in their classrooms, with their own funds,” to ensure that if kids came to school hungry, they’d have something to eat. As schools reopen, “we need Congress to put kids first,” she said. “It’s our moral obligation to work toward closing the inequity gap that has persisted in our neighborhoods for far too long.”

Although the Congressional Budget Office has not scored a potential universal school meals program, FitzSimons estimated that it would cost anywhere between $50 billion and $80 billion over 10 years. “We think it’s worth it, because of the outcome it would provide for kids,” she said.

Donna Martin, director of the School Nutrition Program at the Burke County Board of Education in Georgia, argued that the long-term health consequences of poor nutrition — and learning losses associated with childhood hunger — outweigh the costs of a universal program. “My question, when we talk about an investment, is how can we not afford to invest in our kids’ health right now?” she said, noting the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Americans with diet-related illnesses. “The cost will be minuscule compared to the savings down the road.”