States Are Fighting to Bring Back Free School Meals | Civil Eats

States Are Fighting to Bring Back Free School Meals

Over the last year, momentum has been building to revive the pandemic-era model of universal school food access. A new coalition is pushing the federal government to act.

Update: In August 2023, Massachusetts lawmakers agreed on a plan to make universal free school meals permanent.

Last fall, when Darcy Stueber could no longer serve free breakfast and lunch to all 8,000 students in the Mankato, Minnesota, school district, it felt like a step backwards. During the first two years of the pandemic, every school enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) could offer its students free meals, regardless of their family’s income. But when Congress failed to extend these waivers, Stueber and other nutrition service directors across the country reverted to charging for meals.

“There was confusion about that,” Stueber recalls. Many low-income families didn’t realize they had to submit a school meal application to obtain free and reduced-price meals. Others were suddenly faced with a new financial constraint.

Stueber recalls a “difficult conversation” she had with a single mother of four kids, for instance. While her gross income was over the qualifying limit of $60,000 for reduced-price meals, her take-home pay was far less, after health insurance and other deductions chipped away at her earnings, making it hard to cover groceries and meals that have grown more expensive due to rising food costs.

“Making sure that all kids who are in school for seven hours a day have access to the nutrition they need to concentrate and focus and thrive in school is really the best way to make sure that we can support kids and families.”

Stueber’s experience in Mankato reflects a wider trend. In a recent survey completed by the School Nutrition Association (SNA), 90 percent of the 1,200 responding districts reported challenges with getting families to submit school meal applications, and 96 percent of responding districts reported an increase in unpaid school meal debt that totaled about $19 million. (Per district debt varied drastically, from $15 in one district to nearly $2 million in another.)

Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson with the SNA, says the survey also showed a drop in school meal participation in districts that had to start charging for breakfast and lunch again, perhaps in part due to “an increase in stigma for low-income students who rely on those meals,” she says.

Stueber, who is also the public policy chair of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, spent much of the last year advocating for a return to free meals. In March, she says she was “excited and proud” when Minnesota’s governor signed legislation creating a permanent free school meal program in the state.

Over the last year, momentum has been building to revive the pandemic-era model of school food access. In addition to Minnesota, lawmakers in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Maine have all committed to funding what are often referred to as universal free meals. Other states, including Vermont and Connecticut, extended free meals through the 2023 school year, and more than 20 other states have at least attempted to pass universal meal legislation, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC.) While it’s state legislatures that have led the charge back to free meals, advocacy groups, medical associations, a teachers union, and parents organizations this month joined together to form the Healthy School Meals for All Coalition, which plans to push Congress to bring back universal school meals.

“Making sure that all kids who are in school for seven hours a day have access to the nutrition they need to concentrate and focus and thrive in school is really the best way to make sure that we can support kids and families,” says Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the FRAC, which is one of the members of the coalition.

Leah Gardner, policy director with Hunger Solutions Minnesota, says that advocates have been “screaming into the wilderness”  for universal school means  for many years. But it wasn’t until the pandemic, when parents, schools, and legislators realized it could be accomplished that the political will started to surface. “Why would we go backwards if we want to invest in our children?” Gardner asks.

Money Matters for Universal School Meals

State legislatures that have greenlit permanent universal school meals have the political support to do so, along with one other key ingredient—money.

In New Mexico, a universal school meal law that passed unanimously in the state House and Senate sets aside $22.5 million to cover the cost of those meals, filling the gap that federal reimbursements won’t cover. The bill also sets aside additional money to upgrade school kitchen equipment to allow for more scratch cooking. “We want fresh farm-to-table,” says Senator Michael Padilla, a Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Padilla has been a longtime advocate for healthy school meals in a state where 67 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price meals. He grew up in extreme poverty and says he ate whatever was available, which often meant fast, unhealthy food. “I had horrible eating habits,” he says, adding that his health has suffered as a result.

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He knew the timing was right to push for healthier universal school meals because New Mexico is now the second largest oil and gas producer in the U.S. Though such economic activity isn’t a win for the planet at a time when nations must drastically cut oil and gas production to limit the impacts of the climate crisis, it has left the state flush with cash at the moment. “We don’t know when we’re going to see this money again,” says Padilla.

California also launched its universal school meal program in 2021 amid a budget surplus, and Gardner, with Hunger Solutions Minnesota, says a healthy budget has also helped with the $388 million price tag of supplying free meals for students in her state over the next two years. “That could change,” she says, adding that part of the state’s strategy is to secure all available federal reimbursement dollars.

One way to do that is by requiring eligible districts to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which permits schools in poor areas to feed all kids at no cost. Currently, schools where 40 percent or more students receive federal food assistance or other benefits can participate.

“We think kids in Florida should have as much access to free school meals as kids in California.”

But districts sometimes opt not to because the federal reimbursement rate for CEP schools doesn’t always cover the cost of meals in full, leaving districts with the bill for a portion of them. And that’s not something all districts have the means to pay. “Minnesota has been one of the worst in terms of our participation rate in CEP,” says Gardner, adding that the new universal school meal legislation (and the newly dedicated funds) should greatly increase participation around the state. A recently released FRAC report indicates the end to universal meals in many states did boost CEP participation. Nearly 7,000 schools nationwide adopted CEP this past school year, a 20 percent increase over the 2021-2022 school year.

A recently proposed rule by the USDA would free up more schools to participate in CEP by dropping that 40 percent threshold down to 25 percent of identified students who receive federal assistance. But Pratt-Heavner, with SNA, says widespread participation will likely only occur if Congress also increases the amount of federal reimbursement that is offered to CEP schools, something USDA has no control over. “Lowering the identified student percentage is really only helpful to those states that have stepped up and provided state funding. Or if the local school board is providing funding,” says Pratt-Heavner. (Last month, Representative Morgan McGarvey (D-Kentucky) introduced a bill that would increase the federal CEP reimbursement rate.)

This patchwork state-by-state revival of free meals isn’t ideal, says FitzSimons, who adds that she would rather see action from Congress. President Biden has pledged his commitment to expanding access to free school meals, and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) are spearheading an effort to reintroduce universal school meal legislation, a move the newly formed Healthy School Meals for all Coalition supports.

“We think kids in Florida should have as much access to free school meals as kids in California,” FitzSimons says, adding that the National School Lunch Program and National School Breakfast Program is, after all, “a federal program that is designed to meet the nutritional needs of our schoolchildren.”

Progress and Politics

The Food Research and Action Center offers a map that shows state-by-state action related to universal school meals. More than a dozen states are shaded green, indicating that legislators have campaigned for universal school meals there. FitzSimons says while many states haven’t gotten a bill across the finish line, there is still progress.

Oregon, for instance, was “one of the first states to work on healthy school meals for all, and that was before the pandemic,” she says. In fact, Oregon expanded free meals in 2019 to include children whose family incomes are 300 percent above the poverty line, meaning a family of four with an annual income of about $83,000 would qualify for free school meals. (The federal program caps income for free meals at no more than $36,000.)

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Representative Courtney Neron, an Oregon Democrat who sponsored a universal school meal bill that didn’t garner enough support this year, says she’s now focusing on encouraging greater CEP participation in her state by funneling more state dollars toward schools that opt in.

A path toward free meals remains more elusive in states where conservative ideology rules. In North Dakota, for instance, a bill that at first aimed to secure universal school meals was revamped to expand free meals to children whose families sit at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill failed by one vote in the Senate.

Republican State Senator Michael Wobbema says he doesn’t think the state should intervene and change the rules of a federal program, and, he says, he doesn’t like the idea of taxpayers funding meals for kids whose families may have the means to pay. “I’m just a conservative Republican kind of guy who lives by the tenet of personal responsibility,” Wobbema told Civil Eats.

Stueber, of Mankato public schools, has heard that argument many times. But after years of working with families who often ride the line between financial stability and struggle, she thinks schools should serve kids in all capacities, no questions asked. “We don’t charge for books and desks,” she says, adding that lunch is just another part of the day that helps steer kids toward learning and clear of hunger.

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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