School Food

Op-ed: Our Shot at Creating Hunger Free Schools

Update: Since this op-ed was published, lawmakers in California and Maine have voted to give all students access to free school meals. 


Times of crisis create opportunities to make real and lasting changes. COVID has given us a window through which to improve the lives of millions of children by offering healthy school meals to every one of them. As most educators know, school meals are just as critical as textbooks when it comes to giving students the fuel to learn. But policymakers need convincing.

At various points throughout the pandemic, an estimated 33 percent of households with children have experienced some level of food insecurity. When schools closed, millions of struggling families still needed school breakfast and lunch to keep hunger at bay for their children. Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to ensure that children received the nutrition they needed for their health and learning.

The USDA subsequently allowed school districts to serve free meals to all children during the pandemic, ensuring as many children as possible still had access to the nutrition they need for their health and learning, according to Food Research & Action Center’s School Meals: The Impact of the Pandemic on 54 Large School Districts report. Any family could access free meals, regardless of the community in which they resided. This has been the key to reaching hungry children, including those who experienced empty pantries for the first time during the pandemic.

For more than a year, healthy school meals for all children have been a reality. And USDA Secretary Vilsack has extended this innovative and proven approach until June 2022.

Now, we are at an inflection point.

As schools prepare to reopen in the fall, we must decide whether to maintain universally free school meals or revert to the “free or reduced-price” tiered program that leaves out children whose families fail to demonstrate that they meet the strict eligibility requirements. Under the previous program, some children fell through the cracks, often sitting in classes with empty stomachs, unable to focus or learn. Teens from struggling households opted out of the program, not wanting to be stigmatized as “poor.” In some cases, lunches were swept away from children who could not pay, then thrown into the garbage. In all cases, staff in school nutrition departments spent time processing paperwork instead of focusing their energy on delivering nutritious and appetizing meals.

Today, school lunch period calls attention to inequity and shames some students. We strive to create a culture in our public schools in which lunchtime is an opportunity for learning and social experiences and a setting in which all students launch from the same starting line, well-fed and prepared to learn together. This is fundamental for dignity for our children. In a country striving to make gains in equity, free school meals rank as a critical starting point.

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That’s why the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021—released by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), and Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin)—is so critical. The proposed bill would ensure that all children have access to nutritious meals while they are at school, in summer and afterschool programs, and in child care.

The bill follows recent moves to provide universal free meals for all school students in cities including Boston, New York, and Chicago and a similar effort that could soon take effect in California and Maine.

Some argue that providing free meals to all students would be too costly an endeavor. But it would be much more costly in the long run not to provide children with the nutrition they need for their health and learning. We need to invest in our children now to keep health care costs down and to build a skilled workforce—both critical to the well-being of our communities and our country.

The Biden administration has already made great strides. Hunger is declining because of stimulus payments, child nutrition waivers, Pandemic-EBT, and boosts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would deepen the commitment to hunger free schools. Now is not the time to turn back on the progress being made. Passing the Act would build on the success already achieved during the pandemic and make free school meals for all a reality beyond 2022.

The availability of free meals through waivers has shined a light on the benefits of offering school meals at no charge so that all students can experience the health and educational benefits together. Of all the pandemic’s lessons, it is perhaps most important that we learn from this one. As students return from a year of isolation and want, we have an opportunity to set a new table. Let us invite all children to partake.

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Luis Guardia and Miriam Nelson

Luis Guardia, MBA, MS, is president of Food Research & Action Center, which works to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States.

Published by
Luis Guardia and Miriam Nelson

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