Free school meals created a massive surge in the number of students who participated in district lunch and breakfast programs over the last few years. And the sharp increase is only adding momentum to efforts to make free school meals permanent and universal.
Nearly 30 million students per day received lunch at school and more than 15.5 million had breakfast in the 2021–2022 academic year as more children returned for in-person instruction. Those numbers represent an increase of 10.1 million lunches and 1.6 million breakfasts compared to 2020-21, the first full school year of the pandemic when meals were free but many schools and districts remained closed, according to the Food Research & Action Center’s latest data.
“This dramatic growth in participation shows just what is possible when meals are available to all students at no cost, and students are back in school,” the report says. “There is considerable evidence of the important role that school meals play in alleviating poverty and food insecurity, supporting good nutrition, boosting learning, and improving health outcomes.”
Momentum for free school meals
While last year’s numbers were also a significant increase over pre-pandemic levels, the Food Research & Action Center is already tracking a decline in the number of breakfasts and lunches served in October and November 2022 compared to the same months in 2021. In response, voters and lawmakers in California, Maine, and Colorado have recently passed legislation making free school meals permanent for all students while Minnesota, Wisconsin and some other states are heading in the same direction. Connecticut, meanwhile, entrenched free school meals for the remainder of 2022-23 only at a cost of $60 million.
High-need schools and districts can also tap into the federal Community Eligibility Provision to expand free meal programs in the absence of federal legislation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also proposed lowering the eligibility requirements for the CEP program. Policymakers could also increase the number of children from low-income households who qualify for free meals without having to apply, the report recommends. Some 39 states, meanwhile, now participate in Medicaid Direct Certification for school meals.
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“Proven best practices for increasing participation—such as implementing innovative breakfast models, increasing the length of the lunch period, and serving high-quality, appealing meals—remain at the forefront of efforts to maintain the momentum from the 2021–2022 school year moving forward,” the report says.
To increase participation, the report also recommends expanding “Breakfast After the Bell” programs, such as breakfast in the classroom and “grab and go.” Because older students in middle and high school are not always hungry first thing in the morning, another approach—”second-chance breakfasts”—gives them a chance to eat after the first period of the day.
Questions of debt
The expiration of free school meal programs has, of course, caused lunch debt to begin rising again. In a survey earlier this year, 847 districts pegged their unpaid meal debt at more than $19 million, according to the School Nutrition Association. Also, an overwhelming majority of districts reported having difficulties getting families to complete free and reduced-price meal applications while many school systems have also seen increased stigma around nutrition assistance programs.