A two-year test run of free school lunches during the pandemic has intensified calls at the state and federal level to permanently stop charging kids for their meals.  

Advocates haven't given up on action by Congress, but the pathway with the most activity right now is at the state level, said Alexis Bylander, senior manager at Food Research and Action Center. Separately, the Biden administration also is moving to increase the number of schools where all kids are eligible for free meals. 

Before the pandemic, more than half of American public school students were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch. The number increased during the pandemic as USDA did not require any income requirements to qualify for free meals.

Total meals served through the National School Lunch Program, Special Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program and Summer Food Service Program increased to 8.4 billion total meals served in fiscal 2021, up from 7.9 billion in FY20, according to USDA's Economic Research Service The costs increased from $21.2 billion to $26.8 billion.

“COVID-19 highlighted to those who didn't already know the critical role that school meals play for children and by providing free school meals for all students during the pandemic for over a little over two school years," Bylander said at the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference. "It really gave us the opportunity to do a trial run of what a nationwide free school lunch policy would look like. People liked it and they didn't want to go back over a year ago.”

California and Maine are implementing free school meals for this school year. Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico have made free school meals for all a permanent part of the school day for next year. In addition, Nevada, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut have established temporary free school meal policies during the 2022-2023 school year. 

Each state has taken different routes, with Minnesota adopting a standalone bill, California including free meals in its budget, and Colorado's effort advancing through a ballot initiative. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, a bill has been introduced or an active campaign is underway to provide universal free school lunches (represented by green in the map below).

Bylander said these states approved funding to cover the cost between federal reimbursements and the cost of free school meals for all students. She believes as more states pass policies, the list of supplemental supports also included will grow. 

“Other possible components could include state funding for staff training, with local food procurement, wages, technical assistance, evaluation, etc.,” Bylander said. 

While speaking at the anti-hunger conference, Leran Minc, assistant director of state policy for Project Bread in Massachusetts, explained the ending of the federal free school lunch for all came at a time when Massachusetts was tackling its own budget. Project Bread started floating the idea of using American Rescue Plan funds to do an extension of school meals.

Minc said state funding approved for one year will allow the group to collect data and push legislation with a permanent extension in future years. “We have a lot of great momentum,” he said, with over two-thirds of the state's legislators as co-sponsors. Last month the state House of Representatives proposed in their state budget making it permanent. “We’re really hopeful that will get included in the final budget,” he said.

In Colorado, the ballot initiative still needs to be implemented. The initiative also included provisions for sourcing from local farmers, increasing the wages of cafeteria workers and training those workers to cook from scratch. At the heart of Colorado’s implementation is establishing community advisory councils to help drive the policy moving forward and allow students, parents, teachers and food advocates to help shape the program, said Erika Cervanetes, community organizer for Hunger Free Colorado.

Regulatory action has been another significant way to expand the number of those who receive free school lunches.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 established the provision that allows schools or school districts with 40% of its student population eligible for certain federal welfare programs to provide free school lunches, regardless of whether the students come from low-income families. USDA closed the comment period May 8 on a proposed rule to modify the community eligibility provision from a 40% poverty-level threshold to 25%. 

Following the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, President Biden included in his most recent budget proposal a change in the Community Eligibility Provision multiplier from 1.6 to 2.5, which would increase the number of children that attend CEP schools and would add 9 million children to those that receive free meals at school. Prior to the pandemic, about one in one in three schools were offering free meals to all students through CEP, FRAC said.  

Conservative groups including the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation oppose universal school lunches and USDA changes to CEP provisions because of high costs and providing free meals to higher-income students. In comments to USDA on the proposed changes, Jonathan Butcher and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation argued that federal lawmakers should sunset the CEP and restore federal school meals to those who need it.

Because low-income students already qualify for free meals, “Heritage Foundation research has found that the CEP results in more children from middle- or upper-income homes receiving free meals,” the comments say. For example, in Maryland and Kentucky, between 2004 and 2016, the share of higher-income students receiving free meals more than tripled, and in Michigan and Illinois the share nearly doubled.

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In addition, Heritage said USDA’s proposal ignores the cost of changing the threshold from 40% to 25%. Heritage estimates lowering the CEP threshold would cost $8 billion to $11 billion in additional federal, state and local government spending per year.

“As of 2020, about 70% of schools eligible to participate in CEP elected to do so, and about 15 million students received meals through CEP. If this take-up rate were to hold after the lowering of the eligibility threshold, then at least 28 million students would receive school meals free at the point of delivery through the CEP, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $30 billion per year, at least $14 billion of which would be attributable to schools that adopted the CEP due to the proposed rule,” Heritage told USDA.

Butcher said Heritage supports states helping supplement the costs to provide free school lunches. “If state programs are restoring this original purpose and resolving the inaccuracies and waste so prevalent in the federal program, we can count this as an improvement.”

Anti-hunger groups are not giving up on a federal push to provide universal free meals. Earlier this month, 18 organizations including FRAC, School Nutrition Association, National Education Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics formed the Healthy School Meals for All Coalition to call on Congress to make universal free school lunches a reality.

“It's good that President Biden is supportive, but free school meals for all nationwide would require an act of Congress,” Bylander said.

Luis Guardia, president of FRAC, said school meals for all would be a “game changer” and added the "time for a nationwide approach is now" as FRAC spearheads the coalition.  

In March, Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Katie Porter, D-Calif., urged Congress to include universal free school lunches in the fiscal 2024 budget. In 2021, Democratic Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York as well as Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act and are expected to reintroduce the bills.

“School nutrition professionals witnessed first-hand how free meal service combats stigma for students who rely on free meals, supports working-class families, reduces paperwork for staff and fosters a sense of community in the cafeteria,” said SNA President Lori Adkins. 

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