A table full of school children seated in the lunchroom eating lunch.
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Child Food Insecurity and the Inaccessibility of School Meals

Millions of children will lose access to free school and summer meals after June 30 if Congress fails to extend a series of federal waivers that allow students access to free food. In response to the pandemic, the Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers were implemented in March 2020 and granted free meals to all students regardless of their ability to repay (USDA). For the last two years, the waivers have ensured that an additional 10 million students could eat during the school week and provided at least two meals a day for struggling families with kids. 

As the cost of living continues to rise despite the stagnant minimum wage, food poverty and insecurity continue to be a problem for working families throughout the United States. In 2020, 13.8 million households were food insecure and lacked access to affordable foods (USDA). Most food insecure households had at least one full-time worker (Children’s Defense Fund). More than one in seven children in the U.S. were food insecure, with Black and Latine children twice as likely to live in these households than white children. 

TAKE ACTION

Contact your state’s representatives and demand they extend child nutrition waivers before the June 30 deadline.

• Help pay off the school meal debt in Prince William County School District or at your local school.

• Donate to organizations like All for Lunch and School Lunch Fairy paying off students’ school lunch debt.

• Use the No Kid Hungry or the USDA Meals for Kids interactive maps to find local organizations and sites providing free or reduced-price meals for kids during the school year and summer. You can locate local food banks and pantries here.

Food insecurity in children exposes them to adverse cognitive, behavioral, and health effects (Center for the Study of Social Policy). Access to school meals can help curb this and improve a student’s health, well-being, and academic success (Food Research and Action Center). 

The National School Lunch Program, implemented in 1946, buffered children from the consequences of food insecurity but was limited. It only provided low-cost or free lunches to children each school day, and eligibility for the program was not guaranteed for low-income households (The Guardian). Subsequent nutrition programs like the waivers in 2020 removed the red tape, cost, and stigma associated with school meals while supporting schools struggling to operate.  

The waivers allowed more flexibility: expanding food distribution methods, offering meals-to-go, and waiving certain nutritional requirements to counter food supply chain issues and the school labor shortage. They also made it more accessible for students to receive meals in the summer and removed the burden of school lunch debt by reimbursing the schools at higher rates for providing the service (Vox).

The average cost of school lunch is between $2.48 and $2.74. This costs between $446.40 and $493.20 each school year. 1.54 million students cannot afford school meals. And the average meal debt per child is $170.13 yearly. 75% of the 1755 surveyed schools have unpaid student meal debt. (Educationdata.org). With the implementation of the waivers, 95% of school districts saw a decrease in child hunger, and 81% reported it helped eliminate school meal debt (FRAC).

In 2019, the reality of school lunch debt made headlines after incidents of school staff and administrators shaming students started surfacing. A Minnesota high school barred seniors from graduating due to outstanding lunch debts. An Alabama elementary school stamped, “I need lunch money” on a child’s arm. Staff publicly trashed lunch trays filled with uneaten food from students unable to pay (Star TribuneAL.comEducationdata.org).

Approximately 90% of U.S. schools participate in the universal free school meals waiver for the 2021-2022 school year (School Nutrition). If left to expire, countless students who relied on the meals will go hungry or start incurring debt they cannot repay.

“We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but what school meal programs face is nowhere close to normal,” said Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association. “Congress’ failure to act will undoubtedly cause students to go hungry and leave school meal programs in financial peril” (Politico).

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow introduced the Support Kids Not Red Tape Act, which would extend the waivers for two additional summers and the 2022-2023 school year (Congress.gov). However, there’s been little movement ahead of the waiver expiration deadline, and Stabenow’s bill fails to provide a permanent solution to the country’s food insecurity in children. 

States like California and Maine have passed legislation making universal free school meal programs a permanent fixture. New York, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Vermont have introduced similar legislation (The Guardian). Most states like Texas, which has the largest meal debt at $57.6 million, fail to ensure that the most vulnerable have one of the most basic necessities for survival. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• A series of waivers that have ensured millions of students had access to free school meals expires on June 30.

• If not resolved, millions of students who depend on the free school meals will go hungry or start collecting meal debt. 

• Access to school meals not only supports student health, well-being, and academic success but also curbs food insecurity in children.

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