Student Well-Being

Free Meals for All Students Is Best Way to Combat Hunger, Report Concludes

By Alyson Klein — September 28, 2023 3 min read
Students eat lunch at Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in New York on Dec. 10, 2019.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Offering every child—regardless of income—free breakfast and lunch at school is the best recipe for combatting hunger and ensuring students get the nutrition they need to learn, according to a report released recently by the Center on American Progress, a progressive think tank.

The federal government and state governments have already made some steps in that direction. During the pandemic, Congress temporarily made universal meals free to all students, but that stopped last year. Still, eight states—California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont—plan to provide universal free meals during the 2023-24 school year.

And earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed the rules of the school breakfast and lunch programs. The federal government will now pick up the tab for school meals for all students at schools where at least 25 percent of families receive income-based federal benefits such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

About 3,000 additional school districts serving more than 5 million students will now be eligible for free school lunches because of the change, federal officials told the Associated Press. Previously, at least 40 percent of families had to receive those benefits for schools to qualify for free meals for all students.

Concerns about the quality and portion sizes of free meals

The quality of school meals seems to have taken a dip since the pandemic, according to interviews CAP conducted with students, school administrators, and food service workers in Colorado’s Greeley-Evans Weld County School District 6, which has been serving up free meals to all students for the past three years.

One student told researchers: “I saw more healthier things, and then after COVID it turned to hot wings, chicken nuggets, burgers, hot dogs, and all those processed [foods]. Our breakfasts were really prepared, but now we always get the same stuff, and it’s always packaged all the time. I would say because there’s less healthier options [the quality of food has] declined.”

Students also wish there was more consideration of their cultural and religious backgrounds in choosing lunch menus, the CAP report said. For instance, some Muslim and Jewish students abstain from pork-based foods and Catholic students may not eat meat on Fridays during the period before Easter, but school districts don’t always take those needs into account, according to the Colorado students and school officials CAP spoke to.

Food can also be a way for students to share their cultural backgrounds with others. For instance, pupusas, a Salvadorean specialty, were a big hit in Greeley-Evans. Students also told researchers they needed more vegetarian options.

Students suggested making breakfast more accessible, possibly by serving it in the classroom in earlier grades and offering “grab-and-go” breakfast kiosks in hallways for older students. Both students and staff said they would like a longer lunch period, since they don’t have enough time to get and consume their food. And students said that the portions offered in school meals are often not large enough to satisfy them.

To address those concerns, the federal government should craft expanded guidance on meat-free and culturally relevant foods that meet federal nutrition standards, CAP’s report recommends. It also suggests schools consider salad bars as a way to help students get larger portions while reducing waste and emphasizing the consumption of vegetables.

The report recommends schools give students at least 20 minutes of seated eating time.

In a nationally representative survey this summer, more than 9 in 10 educators told the EdWeek Research Center that their students need at least a half-hour to eat. But more than three-quarters of teachers said their students get less time than that, and 21 percent of teachers said their students had less than 20 minutes for meals.

Debate over providing free meals for everyone

Legislation to make breakfast and lunch free for all students has been introduced in Congress by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and Rep. Ilhan Omar D-Minn.

But Jonathan Butcher, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a free market think tank, who has studied the school lunch program, said extending free meals to all students would get away from the program’s original goal of helping the students who need the meals the most.

“It’s not fair to ask taxpayers to pay for meals for middle- and upper-income kids,” he said.

Related Tags:

The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Q&A How to Address Parents' Concerns That SEL Goes Against Their Values
A Texas instructional coach shares insights she has learned from talking with hesitant parents.
3 min read
Illustration concept of emotional intelligence, showing a woman balancing emotion control using her hand to balance smile and sad face icons.
Student Well-Being Pause Before You Post: A Social Media Guide for Educators in Tense Political Times
5 tips for educators and their students to avoid making harmful or false statements online that they later regret.
6 min read
Tight crop of a man's hands using a mobile phone with the popup box that reads "Delete post, Are you sure you want to delete this post? Cancel or Delete"
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion What Does the Dangerous Political Climate Mean for Schools?
Educators and researchers offer advice for navigating political polarization in the classroom.
5 min read
Grunge Collage styled urban graphic of US election
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being Q&A Why Educators Need to Better Understand What Drives Kids' Cellphone Addictions
As more school and day-to-day tasks are completed on smartphones and computers, teens struggle to manage their screen time.
3 min read
Young man and woman without energy on giant phone screen with speech and heart icons above them. Addiction. Contemporary art collage. Concept of social media, influence, online communication
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + iStock