A table full of school children seated in the lunchroom eating lunch.
Image Source: CDC on Unsplash

Child Food Insecurity and the Inaccessibility of School Meals

Following the expiration of a series of federal waivers that provided free meals to millions of children in the country, California became the first state to implement free school meals ahead of the 2022-2023 school year (California Department of Education). The Universal Meals program will offer any student free breakfast and lunch each school day, regardless of their ability to pay. The program fills the role of the Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers, initially implemented nationwide in March 2020 (USDA). For the last two years, the waivers 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. The expiration is expected to have devastating effects. 

As the cost of living continues to rise despite the stagnant minimum wage, food poverty and insecurity are 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

• 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 these effects and improve a student’s health, well-being, and academic success (Food Research and Action Center). 

The 1946 National School Lunch Program buffered children from the consequences of food insecurity, but it only provided low-cost or free lunches on school days, 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.  

President Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act in late June to “equip schools, summer meal sites, and child care food programs with extra resources so they can continue serving children through school year 2022-2023” (USDA). The move is meant to help schools struggling with high food costs and supply chain disruptions but fails to extend the free meal programs. And as schools prepare to raise the cost of school meals by as much as $5 to counter rising food costs, families who were already struggling will be dealt an additional financial blow in the new school year (Time).

The expiration doesn’t mean that students can no longer get free or reduced lunches. Instead, parents and guardians will need to apply to qualify for the program. However, 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. It removed the “stigma of being a free or reduced-price lunch kid and the embarrassment of families who can’t pay their kids’ lunch accounts” (AP News). It 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 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). And with the expiration of these waiver programs, countless students who relied on the meals will go hungry or start incurring debt they cannot repay.

States like California and Maine have passed legislation and implemented universal free school meal programs as 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 and blocked the incurring of student lunch debt expired.

• California becomes the first state to have a free statewide school meals program that offers universal free breakfast and lunch.

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

*This piece was originally published on 6/10/22. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 8/22/22.

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