When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, federal policymakers acted quickly and decisively to make school meals available free to all children.
This policy remained in effect for two and a half years. It was a game changer.
Across the country, school nutritionists reported numerous benefits in the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) Large School District Report, including removing the stigma of participating in programs and eliminating school meal debt to the benefit of both families and school districts. The policy also helped address household food insecurity, which increased significantly due to COVID-19 and allowed an additional 10 million students to eat free meals at school every day.
Unfortunately, Congress let the policy expire in June. As a Result, families were left scrambling and confused as they entered the new school year, unprepared to file school meal requests — some for the first time if their child was not enrolled in the K-12 system before the pandemic.
As leaders of two national nonprofits dedicated to the health and well-being of children — and, more personally, as parents themselves — we remain amazed at Congress’ reluctance to act given its record of success. We do not know of any child, family or school that has been helped by this decision. But we know that many have been injured and are still trying to get back on their feet after possible job loss, caregiver loss, and other challenges caused by the pandemic.
A parent who participated in FRAC’s story collection initiative told us, “My kids have been getting free meals — lunch and breakfast for the past two years. Now I have to pay for both boys every day, which is about $200 a month… $200 doesn’t seem like much to some, but when you live paycheck to paycheck it can be an extra expense.
For many children, school meals are a necessity, not a luxury; they can provide almost half of the daily calories and are often the most nutritious meals children get. We’ve seen the benefits of easier access for families; now we are witnessing the dangers of taking away that access.
A food service program coordinator from Connecticut who participated in the story collection initiative said, “The free meal waivers implemented in 20-21 and 21-22 have been a great benefit to the families we serve. In a high-cost-of-living state like Connecticut, federal income guidelines for free and reduced-price meals are nowhere near enough to meet the needs of families struggling to pay escalating rent, costs for health care, childcare expenses, utilities, food and other basic necessities.”
A student in a family of four who earns up to $36,075 (130 percent of the federal poverty line) qualifies for free school meals this school year. But that figure doesn’t account for cost-of-living differences, which can vary widely between states or regions. More importantly, that figure is well below the cost of living for a family of four in every state.
Some states have stepped in to fill the void. Colorado residents just voted to make healthy school meals for all permanent residents, joining California and Maine. While Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont passed legislation to extend the availability of free school meals for the 2022-2023 school year. Similar legislation is pending in several other states.
A food supply coordinator in Mesa County, Ariz., told us in the story collection initiative that “Covid provided a glimpse of healthy school meals for all students. School canteens free from stigma, students receiving locally and statewide produced food, higher levels of learning and less hunger.”
When school meal programs reach their full potential, it in turn nurtures every child’s potential. Unfortunately, we’re going the other way.
School meal debt, which disappeared during the pandemic, has returned with a vengeance. In some places, food served is taken away from students who don’t have enough money in their account, and the shame and stigma felt by students who can’t afford a school lunch will increase the mental health issues faced by such a group only worsen. many now.
Research shows that healthy school meals for all students lead to less food insecurity, healthier nutrition, better academic performance and more income for schools. We fall far short. And there’s no excuse when we live in the world’s richest nation. Parents, educators, and food providers can be found in every congressional district in the country.
The question before us is whether our leaders will listen to them and act as decisively as they did in 2020. They made the right choice then, in a moment of crisis; they should make the right choice again today.
Congress must now take bold action in every year-end spending package to support children, families and schools by expanding community eligibility and authorizing Medicaid direct certification so that schools can offer free meals to all students. It’s time to prioritize our nation’s children, families and schools and make free school meals a regular part of the school day. Congress, join us in raising your hand for healthy school meals for all.
Luis Guardia is the president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). Twitter: @fractweets. Anne King is the president of National PTA Twitter: @NationalPTA