Why providing free school lunch is more important than ever

Paying less than 50 cents per meal might seem trivial to the 90% of Americans who are food secure, but it creates a substantial financial barrier for others.
Georgina Dukes
Georgina Dukeshttps://uniteus.com/
Georgina Dukes is senior director of social care impact at Unite Us

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program has been a staple of child nutrition and anti-hunger programs for decades, providing free and reduced-priced meals for families in need. During the pandemic, expanded universal access to free breakfast and lunch ensured millions of children received vital nutrition, including home distribution of food during lockdowns and school closures.

Now, recent changes in the law are rolling back those benefits. While the Keep Kids Fed Act extended multiple child nutrition waivers through the 2022–2023 school year, it left out one of the most important: free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of income. That means districts across the country must return to screening applicants based on income qualifications, forcing low-income families to pay 30 cents for every breakfast and 40 cents for every lunch.

Paying less than 50 cents per meal might seem trivial to the 90% of Americans who are food secure, but it creates a substantial financial barrier for others. Eliminating this barrier—and the administrative burden it creates—has real, tangible benefits for children, families, and school administrators.

Free school lunch and academic recovery

Providing free meals at school could substantially offset the negative impacts of inflation and a recessionary economy. Inflation has already made it extremely difficult for many families to put food on the table. With the high costs of gas, groceries, and other essential goods, millions of families have come to depend on their children receiving roughly half of their school meals a week for free, significantly reducing the family’s food budget. For many households, it means kids get nutritious meals they simply wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

It’s also worth noting that, during the last recession in 2008, the percentage of food-insecure households jumped to nearly 15% and persisted at over 14% for six consecutive years before eventually declining to the current 10%. As we near a potential recession, should that pattern repeat, a sustained, years-long period of increased food insecurity could do irreparable harm to our children and our communities at a time when so many are already at risk.

Compounding the lack of accessible food, staff shortages in districts across the country have already led to canceled classes and even experiments with four-day school weeks. That means fewer days in which children are guaranteed a nutritious meal. Providing free breakfast and lunch at schools throughout the week, including the option of curbside pickup as a carryover from the pandemic, would ensure kids get something to eat even during those closures and scheduled days off.

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It’s also widely established that kids learn better when their bellies are full. Educators, administrators, and parents know well that when students are well-fed, behavior issues decline, their focus improves, and test scores and attendance go up. Providing this vital nutrition access is especially critical now as we work to overcome the learning loss due to pandemic school closures.

Providing universal free meals would also eliminate the stigma of free and reduced-cost school meals. Traditional programs often single kids out, adding to their already high levels of anxiety and mental health issues. Some skip lunch altogether to avoid the shame. With school counselors and mental health providers overwhelmed, there just aren’t enough resources to address the ever-increasing list of students’ needs, and taking this small step toward equity in the lunchroom can go a long way toward supporting our kids.

Eliminating the income qualification would also substantially alleviate the administrative burden on both parents and school administrators. Many families don’t know that they need to apply for these benefits or how to get started. Even for those who do, processing the paperwork adds to the burden on already stressed parents and overworked school administrators who, in many cases, are taking on custodial duties just to keep their facilities operating.

Serving as community hubs

When we consider the cost of administrative time and resources required to screen applicants, one has to wonder whether it might exceed the cost of providing universal free meals. Instead, we should eliminate this barrier, simplify the process, and free up administrators’ bandwidth and energy to tend to other unmet needs.

Ultimately, schools should serve as community hubs that provide families with access to the care and services they need quickly—not only nutrition but also housing assistance and other social support. Teachers, counselors, and staff are on the front lines of how health and social care inequities affect those most at risk: our children, who are the future of our communities, economy, and society. School staff are often the first to spot challenges or hear about issues families are facing, and they need tools to respond quickly.

Providing universal free school meals is a critical investment in our future, but it’s only one piece of infrastructure needed to close gaps at the educational level. By giving schools collaborative technology to securely connect students and their families to social care services in their communities, we can overcome barriers to access, provide the timely support they need, and simplify the process—minimizing the burden on kids, families, and administrators.

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