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.
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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.

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The Associated Press, Wire Service contributed to this article.

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