Student Well-Being

The Pandemic Brought Universal Free School Meals. Will They Stay?

By Evie Blad — June 01, 2021 8 min read
Kejuan Turner, 8, eats a burger from a free bagged lunch provided by the Jefferson County School District on the back of his mother's truck with his brother, Kendrell, 9, outside their home in Fayette, Miss.

Relaxed rules during the COVID-19 pandemic have given many Americans a glimpse of a policy child hunger organizations have supported for years: universal free school meals.

Now those same advocates, and some Democratic lawmakers, hope to make free meals for all students permanent.

“Children may not understand when their parents can’t pay the light bill, but they sure understand when there is no food,” said Suzanne Morales, the director of nutrition services at the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, a 25,000-student school system in Orange County, Calif.

Even as schools served fewer meals in the past year, they served almost all of them at no cost.

Efforts to extend free meals through legislation are supported by groups like national teachers’ unions and the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food directors around the country. Making free school lunches universal would not only help poor children, the organization says; it would also eliminate the bureaucratic churn of helping newly eligible families enroll in reduced-price meal programs, concerns about unpaid meal debt from individual students, and the stigma that stops some students from eating subsidized school food.

But some congressional Republican argue that existing school nutrition rules are already too lenient. And some Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have called for a more-targeted approach to feeding students in high-poverty schools.

Pandemic shows benefits of free school meals

Long-term advocates for an array of policy proposals, not just on child hunger, have seen one- or two-year demonstrations of those ideas effectively taking place during the pandemic. Opponents of standardized testing in schools, for example, hope a year of cancelled state tests will fuel a larger discussion about the role of assessments in schools. Advocates for a range of issues now hope to seize momentum to make longer-term changes.

For anti-hunger groups, the test run came through a menu of federal waivers that have given school nutrition programs permission to provide meals on a grab-and-go basis when schools were in remote learning mode. That allowed them to offer takeout containers to all children, even those who didn’t attend school in a particular building.

Additional flexibilities allowed schools to hand meals to parents without children present. Some urban and expansive rural districts even took the show on the road, directing school bus drivers to bring food to remote neighborhoods instead of bringing the children that lived there to school. Some equipped those buses with wifi, allowing students without home internet access to download assignments while they grabbed lunch.

When Indiana schools closed in March 2020, Warrick County schools “immediately went into five days a week of hot food, grab-and-go,” said Shenae Rowe, the nutrition director. “It gave them a little bit of normalcy that everyone wanted so badly.”

Those federal waivers have been extended several times. They are currently set to expire in June 2022, which has allowed schools to serve free meals in classrooms and cafeterias as they return to in-person learning and will continue to allow them that flexibility through the 2021-22 school year.

“For a district like ours, we have seen a huge impact on how the free meals have benefited our students,” said Rowe, who said teachers have noted fewer issues with student behavior as more kids eat at school. “I don’t think people realized how essential our meals were until the pandemic happened.”

But comparing free meals during the pandemic to a hypothetical “normal” year of universal free meals is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, school nutrition directors acknowledged.

To-go items that didn’t require refrigeration didn’t replicate the quality of the hot, from-scratch meals many schools have worked hard to develop, said Morales, of California. Employees in her district planned meals “by prayer,” dealing with pandemic-related shortages of key ingredients, staffing shortages, and increased costs associated with virus precautions.

And participation was inconsistent, even dropping below previous years’ levels, as children switched back and forth between remote and in-person learning and dealt with logistical hurdles, like quarantines and a lack of transportation to meal sites.

Schools served about 191 million lunches in February 2021, compared to about 490 million lunches in February 2020, according to the most recent federal data.

But a larger percentage of those meals were free—90 percent in 2021 compared to 68 percent in 2020—as schools took advantage of the federal waivers.

Legislation to expand free school meals

Despite those contrasts, a group of Democratic lawmakers mentioned the success of pandemic waivers when they introduced a new effort May 7 to make free meals universal.

The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021—cosponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis.—would allow schools to provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student, regardless of family income.

“While the extension of these short-term waivers will come as a relief to many families, without a permanent solution to provide free meals to all students, schools will eventually have to revert to the complicated myriad of paperwork and programs—where only some kids get to eat for free,” the lawmakers wrote in a bill summary.

When he ran for president, Sanders promoted earlier versions of the bill as Americans responded to viral stories of “lunch shaming,” a term that refers to schools refusing to serve students hot meals if they are overdrawn on their accounts.

School nutrition providers say that, because their budgets operate on narrow margins and separately from their districts, they are often put in a tight spot when too many paying students are past due on their meal tabs, sometimes because of missed communications with families or other obstacles not necessarily related to income. In rare cases, districts have resorted to calling collection agencies or withholding diplomas until families pay their bills. That has led to state-level measures in recent years to prohibit such practices.

“Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger,” Sanders said in a statement when he announced the bill. “What we’ve seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards.”

The universal meals bill would prohibit participating schools from denying any child a lunch or a breakfast and it would reimburse “delinquent school meal debt.” It would also increase the federal reimbursement for meals, a priority for groups like the School Nutrition Association.

It’s not clear how much the bill would cost, and the Congressional Budget Office has not calculated an estimate. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is projected to spend about $10.4 billion on the National School Lunch Program and about $4.2 billion on the school breakfast program this fiscal year.

Even if all meals are free, it’s unlikely that all students will participate, school nutrition directors said.

About 52 percent of U.S. students were eligible for free and reduced-price meals in 2019, according to the most recent federal data. Students with higher family incomes eat school meals at lower rates, and that’s been true even during the pandemic, directors told Education Week. But allowing students to eat without enrolling in free programs would take away a huge hurdle, especially for families facing a sudden loss of income or for undocumented immigrant families who may be reluctant to sign up for public benefits, they said.

“There’s always been a stigma with school lunch,” said Rowe, of Indiana. “People think it’s more for the needy kids, and that’s just not the case at all.”

Expanded meal programs were already under scrutiny

Some high-poverty schools already served universal free meals, even before the pandemic, through a program created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The Community Eligibility Provision allows a school or a cluster of schools within the same district to serve free meals to all students if at least 40 percent of their enrollment is made up of “identified students,” who live in households that participate in other federal income-based programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Even as he proposes ambitious expansions of the social safety net, President Biden has stopped short of calling for universal free school meals. Instead, his American Families Plan would expand Community Eligibility through a $17 billion effort to increase reimbursement rates for participating schools and by lowering the qualifying threshold for elementary schools from 40 percent to 25 percent of identified students. The White House estimates the plan would extend free meals to an additional 9.3 million children.

“Targeting elementary students will drive better long-term health outcomes by ensuring low-income children are receiving nutritious meals at an early age,” the White House plan says.

But congressional Republicans have panned Biden’s broad spending programs, and the tax increases on higher income earners it would take to pay for them. Congressional Republicans have previously attempted to tighten restrictions on school meal participation, rather than expanding them.

Groups like the conservative Heritage Foundation have said free school meals aren’t targeted enough. They’ve criticized federal rules that allow districts to combine high-poverty and low-poverty schools in clusters, qualifying them for Community Eligibility by averaging their enrollment between buildings.

“Giving welfare to students who don’t need it deprives them of nothing,” the organization said in a May 14 commentary. “It does, however, needlessly expand a notoriously wasteful program while allowing federal officials to abdicate their responsibility to keep track of which students need assistance.”

Groups like the School Nutrition Association have said they would support any effort to boost eligibility for students, with the ultimate goal of making all meals free. Some even equate providing free meals to providing free textbooks so students can learn.

“Time and time again we hear about kids being sent to the nurse’s office because they are actually hungry,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association. “When the meals are all free, there’s no shame in taking one.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Pandemic Brought Universal Free School Meals. Will They Be Here to Stay?

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