The move would support academic achievement, foster healthy eating habits, ensure access to healthy meals at a time when many households are struggling financially due to the pandemic’s economic fallout, and ease administrative burdens so that school nutrition staff can focus on serving students, SNA argues in its recently published 2021 Position Paper.
The call for universal free meals comes after the USDA announced in October that it would allow public schools to leverage the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option to offer free meals to all children through the current academic year to alleviate increased food insecurity caused by the devastating effects of the ongoing pandemic on the economy.
Early in the pandemic, USDA offered waivers for schools to feed children through the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option at no charge to the families, but it was unclear until the fall if the government would have sufficient funds to cover the costs through the current academic year.
Prior to the waivers extending free meals to all students, only students from homes with incomes below 130% of the poverty line were eligible for free school meals – a restriction that complicated the free meal application process for administrators and which could stigmatize children recipients.
While logistically difficult to implement during the pandemic, the free meal program has provided much-needed nutritional stability to an influx of students who might otherwise go hungry. And while vaccines currently being distributed across America portend an end to the pandemic may be in sight, the economic destruction likely will linger longer – underscoring the need for extending the universal free meal program.
“Since the pandemic, more than four in ten children live in households that struggle to meet expenses, putting children at risk of going without the nutrition they need to focus on their studies,” SNA argues in its position paper.
Even before the pandemic, hunger and food insecurity were threats to one in eight Americans, according to Feeding America – a figure that suggests even when the economy recovers many students may not know from where their next meal will come.
SNA argues insufficient food “is linked to a negative health, development and educational outcomes, such as slower progress in math and reading and a higher likelihood of repeating a grade.”
Universal free meals also could help protect the mental and emotional wellbeing of children, suggests SNA. For example, it notes that universal free meals will eliminate the risk of children who are unable to pay for meals accruing unpaid meal debt, which can be shameful for children and can cut into education funds to cover the debt.
Finally, it says a universal free meal program would dramatically simplify administrative burdens for school nutrition staff by eliminating “the costly, time-consuming meal application and verification process and streamline paperwork and reporting requirements.”
In addition, SNA notes, “parents won’t have to worry about complicated meal applications.”
While SNA clearly has a vested financial interest in universal free school meals, it is far from the only advocate for the program. Universal free meals is supported by several public health advocacy organizations and legislators, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn., 5th District) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) who, in the fall of 2019, introduced legislation to make school meals free for all school children and promised to address lunch debt, increasing funding for the school meals program and improve summer and after school feeding programs.