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The Push for Universal School Meals

One of the biggest topics of concern for parents and politicians alike during the COVID-19 pandemic was school meals. With 4.9 billion lunches and 2.5 billion breakfasts served in the 2019 school year, the shutdown of schools shone a spotlight on the crucial role that the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs serve in childhood health and wellness.

We’re now digging into the push for universal school meals, and why it is a food justice issue.

Today is Election Day and nine states including Colorado have school meals on the ballot. So, we would like to take this opportunity to discuss the Universal Free Lunch Program vs the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

To get started, what is the difference between these two programs? A Universal Free Lunch Program means that lunch and breakfast are provided at no charge to all students of a school or childcare center regardless of their family income. On the other hand, the longstanding National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a “federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children in each school…” (USDA). Unlike a Universal Free Lunch Program, students must qualify for the NSLP to receive a free or reduced-price meal. Advocates for universal school meals highlight the economic, health, and academic benefits of such programs.

Universal Lunch Program

In 2010, a universal lunch program was introduced via the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This act allowed for a universal lunch program in high poverty communities. Eligibility granted en masse per community data and not individual family paperwork. In one example, North Carolina’s Richmond County Public Schools were able to qualify for this act and provide free breakfast and lunch to all students since more than 40% of district families qualified as low income. Today, they still qualify and use the Universal Lunch Program now referred to as Community Eligibility Provision.

Concern regarding the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is that the data collected for CEP qualification is determined by data gathered through SNAP and TANF (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy

Families). At the macro level, SNAP and TANF are some of the most effective food assistance programs, but they still have their own challenges around eligibility and access. If the lines are redrawn on these programs and families that were once eligible are no longer, the school potentially will no longer be eligible for CEP. At the micro level, if SNAP and TANF are removed from a family’s income, there is no money or food that magically appears as replacement (none that I know). That’s money now needed that wasn’t previously in the budget.

This makes election years important as shifts in our country’s leadership and legislation can impact food security for families and communities.

National School Lunch Program

If you or I need to apply for the NSLP, we must first qualify. According to the NSLP fact sheet, a family must meet a gross income that is 130% or less of the federal poverty line. So to qualify for reduced lunch, a family’s gross income must be between $36,000-$51,250 for a family of four.

In recent years due to COVID, the NSLP had to transform to a temporary nationwide Universal Free Lunch Program. Since March 2020, this program has provided free meals to students and their families. However, this federal assistance to schools ended on September 30, 2022, which is why many states now see school meals on their ballots.

Are We Ready To Return To The Former NSLP?

As COVID cases have gone down and schools have reopened to full-time attendance, the NSLP is returning to its pre-COVID days, while the ripple effects of a post-COVID world are still being felt.

Such ripple effects include the loss of parental income if a parent passed away due to COVID, inflation of energy and food prices, and continual impact of supply chain shortages (ex. the war in Ukraine caused a global shortage of sunflower oil and thus foods that contained sunflower oil were impacted). While these effects are ongoing, critics (myself included) believe that it is premature for the federal government to take away the relief granted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families are essentially losing access to food they have come to rely on for the past 2 years.

Free School Lunches and Public Shame

Kids went back to school in person in 2021 and the Universal Free Lunch program was in effect for the entire school year. Children across the U.S. were given access to free breakfast/lunch regardless of their parent’s income.

It is well known in the U.S. the shame kids can feel when they are enrolled in the free lunch program and their friends are not. We have all witnessed or heard stories of kids who couldn’t pay for lunch and their hot cafeteria meal was thrown out—in front of everyone. In my time, kids were even made to stay after school and clean to pay their lunch meal debt off. According to NEA News 2019, in 2017 kids in Alabama were stamped on their arm with “I need lunch money” when they couldn’t pay for lunch. But even though lunch shaming is so common across the U.S., an anti-lunch shaming bill wasn’t introduced until 2017 (just 5 years ago) in New Mexico and then only 14 other states followed suit in 2019. In 2019, a bill called the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act was presented to Congress to stop shaming nationwide. However, it was not enacted into law. This bill would have required all schools to stop these public shaming incidents mentioned above and any communication of the school lunch debt would be kept between the school and the guardian.

The Wrap Up

While the NSLP has its faults, no program is perfect and it has provided food and economic relief for many families. Public shame over receiving government assistance isn’t the fault of one program, but a fault of the community and culture we support.

If the government does transform the NSLP to be a Universal Free Lunch Program nationwide, how long will it last? How much will it cost? Will even more private companies get involved? Will food waste increase?

I believe the overall message here is that in a Post-COVID world we can’t go back to the way it was without looking at the ripple effect and re-examining how well it was working before. Take the time to step back, look broader and further, and make it better.


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