Universal Free School Meals Are Over. What Does That Mean for Hungry Students?
Congress did not renew the pandemic-era waivers that enabled public K-12 schools to feed all students at no cost to their families. Educators and advocates worry children will lose access to guaranteed meals.
In June, Congress passed legislation that, among other things, granted schools additional funding and flexibility to weather supply chain issues and high food costs.
The legislation did not, however, extend pandemic-era waivers that gave schools the flexibility to serve meals to all students at no cost to their families and without having to apply for subsidized prices.
For some caretakers, particularly those of children in early elementary grades, this school year may mark the first time they have had to apply for free or reduced-price school meals.
Some school nutrition directors say they fear that requiring families to apply for subsidized breakfasts and lunches could mean that students who already are food insecure will lose access to guaranteed meals. Anti-hunger advocates are also pushing for permanent federal solutions that remove barriers to school meals for children.
“Every child deserves three nutritious meals a day, regardless of his or her family's circumstance,” said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry, a national anti-hunger campaign run by the nonprofit Share Our Strength.
Hunger can hinder a student’s academic performance. Recent research underscores the benefits of offering universal free school meals, including improved student attendance, reductions in suspension rates, and even improved academic outcomes.
“You know, we'd all like to be fully through this, but we aren't,” Davis said of the pandemic. “Families are struggling. Meal programs are struggling. Taking away the tools that were helping both of them when the crisis is still in place is just shortsighted and wrong.”
Resuming the requirement for families to apply for subsidized meals comes at a time when many U.S. families are still financially struggling due to the pandemic and when inflation and supply chain disruptions are driving increased demand at food banks across the country.
Requiring applications for free or reduced-price school meals can also create a big barrier for some households, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association.
“We were always concerned, even pre-pandemic, about kids who are eligible for meals not receiving them,” Pratt-Heavner said. “Some families don't want to ask for help or they don't want to provide the sensitive information that is requested on the form. We certainly hear this in communities with lots of immigrants that they have trouble convincing families to complete that application.”
The Rush to Remind Millions of Families About Free and Reduced Meal Applications
Waivers that enabled schools to provide students universal free meals were critical to keeping families fed in Philadelphia—especially during the first few months of the pandemic when food bank lines stretched down the block, said Lori Adamczyk (Eastern North Carolina ’02), director of food financial data at Mastery Charter Schools. The network of schools primarily serves students from low-income families and students of color in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.
Adamczyk knows her students will still have access to nutritious breakfasts and lunches at school. For about a decade, the network has been able to serve free meals to all students without requiring applications under the federal Community Eligibility Provision for schools in low-income areas.
Instead, Adamczyk is concerned for the students who don’t attend schools that have this option for meals. Unlike pandemic-era waivers that applied to all public school students, the Community Eligibility Provision reaches a little more than half as many students. In the 2021-22 school year, 33,300 schools serving 16.2 million children were enrolled in the Community Eligibility Provision, or about a third of the nation's 49.5 million public school students, according to NPR.
Not every school that is eligible for the provision participates: Only 74.3% of eligible schools took part in community eligibility in 2021-22, according to the nonprofit Food and Research Action Center.
At most schools, parents and caretakers have to apply for subsidized meals through federal school meals programs, and the price they pay—if any—is based on the household’s income relative to the federal poverty level. An estimated 31.9 million free meals and 2.44 million reduced-price meals were served each school day through these programs prior to the pandemic, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Being ineligible for free or reduced-price school meals through the federal school meals programs does not mean families can afford the full cost, Pratt-Heavner said. “Eligibility doesn't take into account if you have a family member with a medical crisis and, you know, spending a lot of your income on health care costs,” she said. “So we have certainly always seen that application process as a barrier for hungry kids.”
Advocating for Meals as Essential to the School Day
The pandemic-era waivers gave the nation a clearer picture of how full-scale, universal free meals could work. Now, some organizations are pushing to replicate that effort through local and federal legislation.
Promoting the Community Eligibility Provision has been a longtime strategy of No Kid Hungry, Davis said. “We've tripled down on that.”
“We're seeing a lot more interest this year, which is great news,” she added.
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The campaign’s efforts include developing a calculator to make it easier for schools to analyze the financial implications of adopting the Community Eligibility Provision and supporting state legislation that expands the reimbursement option by lowering the eligibility threshold.
Other organizations and lawmakers are also acting on expanding state-level and federal options for universal free school meals. As of August, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have passed legislation or rules that make it possible for all students in their states to receive free school meals.
Other states, like New York, are attempting to follow suit. In May 2022, New York State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas proposed Bill A9518, which would require all schools in the state to provide free school meals to their students. “By passing my legislation we will make sure that thousands of schools and over a million children in New York state can receive the resources to feed and educate the present and future of our nation, our children,” González-Rojas said.
The push to help parents complete free and reduced-price school meal applications continues as classes start to resume across the country. For Shannon Gleave, the director of food and nutrition for Glendale Elementary School District in Arizona, this means meeting families where they are: on mobile phones.
“We're really focusing on doing a campaign to have families apply through their phones because a lot of families now have smartphones,” Gleave said. “And we found that the online application process is a lot faster than the paper process. Families have more accessibility to filling out the applications by their phone or online.”
Gleave says she is proud of the way she and her fellow nutrition directors made sure students had access to healthy and nutritious meals every day during the pandemic, adding that universal free school meals made it much easier to “focus on feeding kids” and meeting the community’s needs.
She doesn’t want that access to end just because the pandemic-era waivers have lapsed.
“Children need fuel in order to succeed academically,” Gleave said. “School meals are definitely part of the academic day.”
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