Some States Want to Lock in Universal Free School Meals as Federal Waivers End

By Libby Stanford — May 31, 2022 4 min read
Norma Ordonez places a tray of grilled cheese sandwiches into an oven to warm as she prepares take-away lunches for students kept out of class because of the coronavirus at Richard Castro Elementary School early Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in west Denver.
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As schools brace for the end of federal nutrition waivers that made free school meals universal during the pandemic, lawmakers in some states are moving to lock programs of their own into law.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutritional waivers are set to expire June 30. The waivers allowed all students, regardless of income, to eat school meals for free for the first time in modern history. Prior to the pandemic, free meals were only given to students who are low income. In the 2019 federal fiscal year, 74.2 percent of meals were free or reduced price, according to the USDA.

They also provided higher than normal reimbursement rates for meals, easing some of the cost on school nutrition programs. Ninety percent of school food authorities, including both public and private school cafeterias, used the waivers, according to a USDA survey released on March 4.

Congress failed to include an extension of the waivers in the $1.5 trillion spending bill that President Joe Biden signed March 15.

When the waivers end, many school districts will be left with the challenge of returning to pre-pandemic rules, including mountains of paperwork, while still being impacted by pandemic-era circumstances like staffing shortages and inflation. And some families will once again have to worry about covering the costs of their child’s meals.

That won’t be the case in California and Maine as both states have passed their own universal free school meal programs. Lawmakers in four other states— Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont—have also have proposed or passed universal free-lunch bills, and Colorado will have a proposal on the ballot in November, signaling a growing interest in the programs.

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First graders Kara Hagerman, 6, from left, Emilee Mitchell, 7, and Amanda Jackson, 7, eat lunch at Iaeger Elementary School. Two meals a day are served to every student attending school in McDowell County.
From left, 1st graders Kara Hagerman, Emilee Mitchell, and Amanda Jackson eat lunch at Iaeger Elementary School in McDowell, County, W.Va.
Nicole Frugé/Education Week

A growing trend

The proposed state laws come after the Universal School Meals Program Act, backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., failed to pass the U.S. Senate last year.

But in Vermont, Doug Davis, the director of food services for the Burlington school district, has been working for over a decade to make the universal free-meal program a reality for Vermont schools. Now, he’s waiting for Gov. Phil Scott to sign the state’s Universal School Meals Act, which was delivered to the Republican governor’s desk on May 25.

If signed, the bill would give every Vermont student access to free school breakfast and lunch. The state’s education fund would cover the added costs of meals that are not already covered through the federal free and reduced-price-meal and Community Eligibility Provision programs, both of which provide free meals for low-income students.

Over the past two years, Davis appreciated the benefits that came with the waivers. Four of the district’s nine schools offered free lunch for the first time, meaning more of his students could access meals. The other five schools are part of the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with high low-income populations to provide meals for free, and all Burlington schools offer free breakfast and supper.

The district didn’t see a huge increase in participation in free lunch programs during the pandemic, Davis said. Instead, the number remained steady with pre-pandemic levels, but the waivers allowed the district to operate with more flexibility. His employees didn’t have to keep track of which students qualified for free- and reduced-price meals and which didn’t. The stigma surrounding paying for lunch was one less mental stressor in an already challenging time for student mental health.

Without the waivers, Davis believes the situation would have resulted in a chaotic mess.

Although the idea of free school meals isn’t new, Davis believes the pandemic gave an extra push for lawmakers to pursue state-funded programs.

“If there is a COVID silver lining, it is that our legislators and our schools and our leaders were able to see what it looks like for school meals to be free for all kids,” Davis said.

In Colorado, the state legislature has approved a ballot question for the November election, asking voters to approve a cap on income tax deductions for people who make over $300,000 a year. The revenue from that cap would pay for the added costs of free meals for students who are not already eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, starting in the 2023-24 school year.

A push for federal action

While the state-level action is a sign of momentum, school nutrition advocates are focusing their attention on national efforts to make universal free school meals a reality.

Organizations like the School Nutrition Association and Hunger Free America have long advocated permanent free-meal programs. The end of the federal waivers will be especially straining for families who fall just outside the USDA’s income-eligibility guidelines, Hunger Free America CEO Joel Berg said.

“I got a free bus ride to school. I got free use of textbooks. I got free use of lab equipment. … Why in the world we’re giving that out for free and then nickel and diming kids over meals is just really astonishingly counterproductive and nonsensical,” he said.

When the waivers end, school nutrition departments will be even more strained than they are now, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, the national organization for nutrition workers. Without the waivers, school nutrition workers will have to do a lot of work to reach families that haven’t had to apply before.

“They’re having to work twice as hard to get food and supplies in the door for their kids, having to reorder items, even running out to grocery [stores] to get what’s been missed,” Pratt-Heavner said. “They just don’t have the capacity right now to do anything extra.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2022 edition of Education Week as Some States Want to Lock in Universal Free School Meals as Federal Waivers End


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