Starting next school year, more than 8 million public schoolchildren will be eligible to eat school meals for free regardless of their families’ income and with no fear of the benefit sunsetting.
Six states have now passed laws to provide universal school meals permanently—marking a major shift in state policy. No state offered the benefit prior to the 2022-23 school year.
But after the federal government ended a pandemic-era policy that paid for all students to eat school meals last summer, several states moved in to fill the void.
“There’s always been a small number of people who are very, very passionate about universal school meals,” said Erika Edwards, the director of operations for Jefferson County schools in Colorado. “The availability of universal free meals during the pandemic absolutely changed that momentum.”
California and Maine passed laws making school meals free to all students starting in the 2022-23 school year.
Colorado voters passed a ballot initiative last November to fund universal free school meals beginning in the 2023-24 school year in districts that opt into the program.
Then, lawmakers in Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont passed their own legislation making school meals free to all students in their states starting next school year.
A few states extended free school meal policies on a temporary basis—Nevada is funding universal school meals through the 2023-24 school year. Connecticut and Massachusetts committed to funding school meals for all students through the 2022-23 school year, but lawmakers in those states did not extend the programs into next year.
Despite those setbacks, the effort to make school meals free for all students—championed by organizations representing schools and health professionals—has notched some important wins in the past year. What remains to be seen is whether this momentum will carry on into next year.
But with bills to create universal school meal programs proposed in more than 20 states this spring, according to the Food Research & Action Center, and some polls showing a strong majority of voters supporting the policy, advocates have reasons to be optimistic.
Universal school meals have wide-ranging benefits
Research has found a variety of benefits to providing free school meals to all students, both in terms of academics and physical health.
Students also learn better when they have access to food, said Amy Ellen Schwartz, the dean of the Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware.
“On a fundamental level, hunger prevents learning, and when a kid is worried about, ‘when am I going to eat, what am I going to have for lunch’ they’re not attentive,” she said. “The commonsense appeal is strong here.”
Schwartz, who has studied the effects of universal free meal programs in schools in New York City, said that it’s the students who are not eligible for federal free- and reduced-priced lunches who show the biggest academic gains from expanding access to school meals.
In many areas of the country, students’ families make too much money to qualify for the federal program but still struggle financially. Edwards sees that in her own district, Jefferson County, which is a suburb of Denver.
“Colorado’s cost of living is pretty high,” she said. “The school meal program is based on income guidelines that are federally created. For a family of four, the cutoff is right around $50,000, and in Colorado, that is not very much for a family of four to live on.”
Universally free school meals might have other benefits, said Schwartz. She’s currently researching the effects the policy has on school climate.
“Eating together, breaking bread together, is such a fundamental human bonding experience and there are so many different ways in which making this a shared experience can matter,” she said.
Providing school meals free to all students can also reduce stigma around eating school meals, making low-income students more likely to eat them, Schwartz said.
Challenges to making school meals free to all
The past school year, since the federal government’s waivers on income eligibility for free school meals expired, has been a rocky one for many school districts and their food service programs.
Schools and families got used to the benefit over the previous two years, and families—including in Jefferson County schools, quickly began to rack up large sums of meal debt at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, likely because parents were confused about eligibility requirements or didn’t realize they had to fill out paperwork to apply.
School districts across the country reported seeing meal debt in the first couple of months of the school year surpass the amount of debt that would normally accumulate over the course of an entire school year.
But that doesn’t mean that making school meals free for all students won’t come with hiccups for schools. Edwards, who is also the public policy and legislation chair for the Colorado School Nutrition Association, said there will be some kinks to work out.
One is staffing: Food service operations—like many other industries—have struggled to find enough workers. While Edwards said that the situation is getting better at least in her area, that might be an issue for other districts.
The other is figuring out how to count low-income students. Free- and reduced-priced meal data is used to allocate funding for many federal and state-based programs, she said.
“From a family’s perspective, it all looks the same, so the need to fill out that application is not as great” if they’re going to get free meals either way, she said. “Then the fear is that we won’t have that true count of how many kids do qualify, and that is used in other funding formulas for things like Title I.”
She said it will require a lot of diligent communication with families on the district’s part to make sure parents still fill out forms for free- and reduced-priced meals.
But she’s hopeful that if states like Colorado can provide a roadmap to dealing with potential issues and proof points to the benefits of universal free school meals, other states will follow its lead.