Public schools have been serving free meals to all students since the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted K-12 education. In March 2022, Congress rejected calls to maintain the federal funding needed to maintain this practice and left that money out of a US$1.5 trillion spending program this President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11, 2022. We asked a 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 meals program?
As of March 2020, nearly all of the United States K-12 school buildings closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal government program National School Meals Programquickly waivers granted to increase program flexibility and meet the challenges of the pandemic.
These exemptions, which have been renewed several times, were of crucial importance for the school meals programs, because the programs abruptly shifted away from serving meals in cafeterias and has designed new distribution models to continue feeding students. Many school meals staff across the country have created take-out meal that families could recover, which was especially important in the spring of 2020 and the following school year. Another major change, which continued into 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 about three-quarters of these meals at reduced rates or at no cost – with the federal government reimbursing part of the cost of these meals.
How much money is involved?
The cost of the program $14 billion in 2019before the pandemic disrupted it.
The price of a school meal for families without free or reduced price meals varies. In 2017, full-price lunches tended to fall between $2.50 and $2.75 a piece.
Do all public school students still get free meals?
Yes. However, this will no doubt change once the last waiver expires on June 30, 2022.
Lawyers urged Congress continue to fund school nutrition programs at higher levels. But the Congress did not include this money in the $1.5 trillion expense bill House and Senate lawmakers passed in March 2022.
This means that next fall most schools will have to go back to the old three-tier system where some families don’t pay at all, some get discounted lunches and others have to pay full price.
Two states will reverse this trend. California and Maine will continue to provide universal school meals after the federal waiver ends due to measures passed by state lawmakers and governors enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the federal level, more than a dozen senators and about fifty members of the House of Representatives supported the proposals legislation in 2021 that would permanently make school meals free for all students, regardless of income. There is important Support for this idea among advocates, but the future of this type of federal legislation remains to be seen.
What are the benefits of making school meals free for all?
In my opinion, the biggest benefit of universal school meals is that more students actually eat nutritious school meals. Following the regulations resulting from the law of 2010 No Hunger Child Health Actthe nutritional quality of school meals has improved significantly and a recent study found that schools healthiest foods kids eat all day.
Research shows that making school meals free for all improves attendance and improves food quality. It also reduces the risk of food insecurity and the the associated stigma with a free meal. When no one has to pay, the growing problem of school meal debt is also eliminated.
Universal school meals have significant logistical advantages. Families don’t have to complete all the paperwork to establish their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals. And cafeteria staff can focus on serving meals if not needed track payments.
What’s wrong with charging some students for lunch again?
You need to look at the costs and benefits of the big picture. Universal school meals provide significant benefits to the school community as a whole, including reducing food insecurity and improving the quality of student nutrition. I believe these benefits far outweigh the marginal cost of providing free meals to students who would otherwise pay.
Fall 2022 is also far too early to return to the three-tier system, as school feeding programs continue to face significant challenges. Supply chain disruptions made it more difficult to buy certain types of food, including chicken and whole grain products. In addition, many schools are struggling hire the staff they need prepare and serve meals, and inflation increases food prices.
What do you see happening in the future?
Ideally, the federal government will reconsider this issue and support universal school meals.
If that doesn’t happen, advocates, policymakers, and researchers will be watching what’s happening in California and Maine. We will be able to compare what is happening in these states against those that do not continue to provide all students with free meals. I hope this information will inform future decisions on implementing universal school meals for all students nationwide.[Over 150,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]