Pandemic-era free school lunch programs won’t return this fall

The healthiest food students usually get during the day is not at the lunch table, but in the school cafeteria.

That finding by Tufts University researchers is just one reason child nutrition experts have urged Congress to pass legislation that would allow schools across the country to provide free meals to all students. The pandemic-era waivers that made universal free school lunch a reality for the past two years have expired, and this fall, students will once again have to qualify for free, reduced-price or full-price meals based on need. .

That prospect raises concern among child nutrition experts who predict that once the school year begins, more children will go hungry amid a spike in food insecurity in households with children.

“There are going to be a lot of struggling families next fall who don’t apply for meal programs or who don’t qualify for benefits,” said Lori Adkins, president of the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit organization that represents 50,000 nutrition professionals. school across the country. “Our programs will continue to provide that safety net for those who do qualify for benefits, but for those who are on the cusp, I’m worried about them. Sometimes it’s that single-parent household with kids, and they have limited resources, and sometimes they can fall through that safety net.”

Beginning in 2020, Congress granted waivers to schools that allowed them to provide free meals to all students, regardless of income. But Republicans opposed extending these provisions, arguing they are no longer necessary now that pandemic-related school closures have ended.

Single-parent households are particularly prone to food insecurity or lack consistent access to the nutrition needed to maintain health. Nearly 29% of single-mother-headed households were food insecure in 2019, compared to 15.4% of single-father-headed households, according to the Center for Food Research and Action, which advocates for the hungry related to poverty.

Universal food exemptions can help. A report from the Food Research and Action Center looked at how these provisions benefited 62 large school districts across the country. Ninety-five percent of districts said meal waivers reduced hunger among their students, 89 percent said the waivers made things easier for parents and guardians, and 85 percent said they erased the stigma associated with free school meals.

“Hungry kids shouldn’t have to worry about meal requests or whether they have money in their account to eat,” said Adkins, who is also a child nutrition consultant for Oakland Schools in Michigan. “It shouldn’t be a privilege; It should be available as part of the school day for all students along with textbooks and the bus ride to school and everything else.”

The federally funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) operates in nearly 100,000 public and private schools and other institutions, helping them serve balanced and cost-effective breakfasts and lunches. School meal prices vary across the country, but have been as low as around $3 for lunch and $2 for breakfast in recent years, though pandemic-related inflation has caused food costs to rise. The Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program, reimburses participating schools for providing meals to students. In fiscal year 2020, the NSLP served meals to about 22.6 million children each school day, and more than three-quarters of these lunches were offered free or at reduced cost. Meals have been linked to higher academic performance, better behavior, and better health for students. They have also been found to reduce food insecurity, as youth from households that lack consistent access to nutritious food meet most of their dietary needs at school.

“School breakfast and lunch meet the nutritional needs of millions of children across the country who depend on them,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and afterschool programs for the Food Research and Action Center.

In June, President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, a bipartisan bill that gives child nutrition programs in schools and similar settings more funding to cover food costs and additional support and flexibility as they feed children. students during disruptions in the food supply chain. But the legislation does not continue with universal free school meals.

Low-income families, especially those enrolling their children in school for the first time, may not realize they need to apply for free meals. Other eligible families, due to stigma, fear, or language barriers, do not apply, just struggling to cover the cost of lunch. Parents with household incomes who qualify their children for reduced-price but not free meals also often find it difficult to keep up with lunch fees.

Despite the benefits of school meals, some low-income families may not apply for their children to receive free or reduced-price meals because of the perception that doing so is equivalent to receiving a handout from the government, said Jennifer Gaddis, author of “The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in America’s Public Schools” and Associate Professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ending universal free school meals may add to this notion, she said.

“I think it will definitely be a change that will push some people who just can’t get over that feeling of ‘Oh, I’m taking something’ or ‘I’m depending on the government.’ Gadis said.

During the upcoming school year, a family of four earning $36,075 or less would qualify for free meals, while a family of the same size earning $51,338 would qualify for reduced-price meals. Eligibility is based on the federal poverty line. Children in some families, such as those enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, will automatically be registered for free breakfast and lunch.

But some school district officials have opposed the idea of ​​children from economically disadvantaged families receiving universal free lunch. School board members in Waukesha, Wisconsin, initially rejected the opportunity to provide free school meals during the pandemic out of fear that doing so would “spoil” students. After public outcry, the board changed course and opted for the federal program.

“There has been a lot of work trying to educate people on how, as long as this is a program that is not universal, there are a lot of children and families that may feel stigmatized by their participation in the program,” Gaddis said. “…One of the big barriers is that a lot of decision makers don’t really think of school meals as education, and we really have to push against this to say that this is something that is really necessary for well-being. be of all students.”

Universal free meals don’t just benefit students, according to the School Nutrition Association. As school nutrition departments face staffing and supply chain shortages, free meals free them from the responsibility of determining which students qualify for free, reduced or full-price meals.

Plus, free meals for all students means schools don’t have to work to collect lunch debt from families who haven’t provided their children with enough money to cover meal costs.

“It’s a lot of pressure on school districts, because they have to absorb those fees if they don’t get paid,” FitzSimons explained. “So it’s not an ideal situation for anyone involved, and being able to offer meals to all children is critical.”

When food debt begins to accumulate at a school, the money used to cover it comes out of the school’s general fund for classroom expenses. Therefore, schools aim to keep meal debt low. In recent years, some schools have come under fire for using aggressive or humiliating tactics to recover lunch debt from families, including stamping students’ hands, not allowing them to attend school events, providing meals markedly different from what is Serve your peers or send bills. collectors after their families. Lunch shaming, as the practice is known, garnered so much attention that in 2017 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued guidance for schools on how they can resolve lunch debt in a way that doesn’t degrade students. youths. In 2019, 75 percent of school districts said they had accumulated debt related to unpaid meals.

With federal action to provide universal free lunch stalling, some school districts and states are taking matters into their own hands, helping children in a way that enjoys broad public approval.

Through the federal community eligibility provision, school districts with large numbers of low-income youth can offer free meals to all students without requiring families to submit documentation. Additionally, California, Maine, and Vermont are among the states that have passed legislation to provide free lunch to all students. Massachusetts legislation to do so awaits the signature of its governor.

“A growing number of states have really understood the value of being able to offer free meals to every child in the state and are improving on that,” FitzSimons said. “Some of the state campaigns take a little longer than you might expect. But there seems to be a lot of … interest and momentum at the state level.”

FitzSimons added that the House passed a budget reconciliation last fall that would allow more school districts to provide free school meals through the community eligibility provision and make it easier for states to do the same. Those provisions are also included in the Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids Act that Rep. Bobby Scott, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced last month. The House is expected to soon review this Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill through which Congress updates the NSLP and other child nutrition programs.

“I would love to see more long-term, sustainable solutions to make meals available to all children every day,” Adkins said. “We just hope that maybe with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, that bill could include something about meals for everyone or there could be a new bill asking President Biden and Congress to extend meals to all students in the future. We are definitely going to continue to push and work to get meals to all students at no cost.”

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