School nutrition association calls for free school food for all students

School meals should be free for all kids, regardless of their families’ incomes, said the School Nutrition Association in a position paper released on Wednesday. Students have racked up $19.2 million in debt for meals since the waivers that made school meals universally free during the pandemic expired last spring, said the group.

At the beginning of this school year, after two years of universal free meals, most schools returned to a three-tiered model, where students from low-income families get free or reduced-priced meals, and those from wealthier ones pay full price. But there are some exceptions — schools with a high percentage of low-income students can still offer free meals to all through what’s called the community eligibility provision. California, Maine and Colorado have made school meals permanently free, while several other states have extended free meals through the end of this school year.

At schools where meals are still free, more students are eating school food, the School Nutrition Association said in a report released alongside its position paper. The report, based on a survey of more than 1,000 directors of school nutrition programs, found that schools that continued serving free meals saw participation in school breakfast programs grow by 8.9 percent between October 2021 and October 2022; lunch participation grew by 6.4 percent in the same time period. 

In contrast, schools that stopped serving free meals reported steep declines in participation. The number of kids eating breakfast at school fell by 23.2 percent between October 2021 and October 2022, and lunch participation fell by 13.2 percent. 

It is highly unlikely that the current Congress will pass legislation making school meals universally free. Even before the midterm elections, Democrats couldn’t overcome Republican opposition to extend the school nutrition waivers for another school year. Now, the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which oversees school meals, is chaired by Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, who said in June that Democrats were using “a permanent pandemic narrative” to increase spending on school meals and other programs. Congress never intended to provide free meals to all students, regardless of need, she said, and argued that “aid should be targeted and temporary.”

As part of its national anti-hunger strategy, the Biden administration plans to expand access to free meals more gradually, by making it easier for schools to qualify under the community eligibility provision. But that path forward is uncertain, too, since it would require Congressional action.

In its position paper, the School Nutrition Association also urged the federal government to avoid a sweeping overhaul of school nutrition standards and to instead maintain the status quo. In the coming weeks, the Biden administration is expected to propose a long-overdue update to the nutrition standards. Health advocates are pushing for a cap on the amount of sugar in school meals (there is currently no limit), as well as continued sodium reductions and increases in whole-grain foods. 

But the association said that the government should maintain the current standards, instead of putting “additional, unachievable” rules into place. It cited research that has found that school meals are already the healthiest foods that kids eat, on average, and said that it’s hard to procure foods meeting stricter standards and challenging to get kids to eat them. 

In the survey, school nutrition directors also named increasing costs, staff shortages, and shortages of certain menu items as their top challenges. And more than half said the current rate at which the government reimburses school districts for meals isn’t enough to cover their full cost.