Recognizing that millions of U.S. children are at risk of hunger, Maine and California have approved funding to offer free school meals to all students within their state. Meanwhile, a bill proposed in Congress aims to make free school meals a permanent fixture in all states.
The Universal School Meals Program Act would provide free healthy meals and snacks to all children in public and nonprofit private schools regardless of income.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed school districts to provide meals free of charge to families during the pandemic. Previously set to expire in September, the policy has been extended through the 2021-2022 school year. This marks the first time in the 75-year history of the National School Lunch Program that all U.S. public school children are getting equal access to school meals, with no questions asked.
When children return to schools in the fall, the ongoing policy waivers provide an opportunity to examine how universal free school meals impact nutrition in school meal programs and health inequities among children.
Good nutrition plays a crucial role in strong academic outcomes. School meals have been shown to reduce childhood food insecurity and childhood overweight and obesity while improving overall diet quality.
School meals are often more nutritious than meals eaten elsewhere or even home-packed lunches. Studies have shown that access to school meals can improve attendance, academic performance and behavior.
Many children, especially those from low-income and minority families, eat up to half their daily calories at school. For these families, the cost of school meals, usually between US$2.48 and $2.74 depending on grade level, can add up quickly over a week, month or school year.
Children with outstanding meal debts could be shamed, refused a meal or provided a lower-cost alternative meal – such as a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk rather than the standard meal served to other students.
School meal programs are run like a business and depend heavily on federal reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When families can’t or don’t pay for meals served, schools may need to use their own funds to cover the losses. The Department of Agriculture prohibits using federal funds to pay off unpaid meal debt. The Universal School Meals Program Act would eliminate around $10.9 million of existing unpaid school meal debt reported by 75% of U.S. school districts.
In addition to school meal debt, during the first full year of the pandemic, schools served fewer meals, resulting in further losses in revenue. The meals served were more costly due to packaging and personal protective equipment for staff. As a result, more than 50% of school meal programs reported a financial loss in 2019-2020. An even greater number of programs report expecting a loss for the 2020-2021 school year.
Return on investment
A national study found that schools participating in universal free meal programs reduced their per-meal costs while maintaining nutritional quality of meals served. School meals can stimulate local economies because they can drive purchases from local farmers and ranchers and create jobs in school nutrition, food production, sales and distribution.
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For school districts, switching to a universal model of meals for all children – regardless of income – is likely to reduce administrative burdens. Schools would no longer have to waste time on applications and meeting reporting requirements like they have to do under the current reimbursement model. They could focus on healthy meals and nutrition education instead.
I believe the return on investment from universal school lunches would benefit our country’s economic recovery from the pandemic as well as the health and well-being of our country’s children.