This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
Some children have just returned part-time to the school where Michael Gasper works, and he is busy. Gasper is the district’s supervisor of nutrition services in Holmen, Wisconsin, a small community just north of La Crosse, with six schools and 3,800 students. His team is coordinating both in-school meals and meal delivery for students in remote learning, while also running a vibrant farm to school program. And on this mid-February day, Gasper is preparing his newly remodeled kitchen for the delivery of 40 boxes of locally produced hamburger and Italian sausage.
Like most other districts around the country, Gasper has been providing free school meals to students during the pandemic, paid for by federal waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and he wants to keep it that way. Today, he is joining with 750 members of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) to call on Congress to expand the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs and provide universal, free school meals all around the U.S.
“Lunch really needs to be part of the school day. It really is part of their education,” says Gasper, noting that most industrialized countries in the world provide lunch free to all students.
SNA, which represents more than 50,000 school nutrition administrators nationwide, cited the policy as the top priority in its 2021 Position Paper, arguing that free meals would support learning and improve attendance and classroom behavior while eliminating the burden of unpaid meal debt on families and school district budgets, and the costly, time-consuming meal application and verification process.
SNA’s support is a shot in the arm for a movement that has been building for decades. And the group isn’t the only major player to step forward. The American Academy of Pediatrics and American Heart Association joined with 62 other organizations in a December 2020 letter, organized by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), urging the Biden Administration to work with Congress to establish universal school meals. Alice Waters’s nonprofit, the Edible Schoolyard Project, has been pushing for the idea in California and beyond. Meanwhile, California State Senator Nancy Skinner introduced a bill in February mandating free meals for all public students in the state.
“Frankly, it’s an idea whose time has come,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, SNA’s director of media relations, told Civil Eats.
In 2019, as part of a roundtable on School Food Policy hosted by Civil Eats, Bettina Elias Siegel, a school food policy advocate and author of Kid Food, lamented the fact that the notion of universal or free school meals was “pie in the sky” because of the political climate at the time. Now, the coronavirus pandemic has changed everything. Siegel says she’s really pleased to see SNA making universal school meals a priority, noting the group carries a lot of weight on Capitol Hill.
The pandemic has exposed and even widened the fault lines in the school lunch program, as districts have scrambled to find creative ways to equitably feed ever more hungry children while keeping their budgets in the black. The USDA waivers, which reimburse school districts for every meal through the 2020–2021 school year, have provided a lifeline to school districts and families, and primed the pump for a longer-term solution. Advocates also see opportunity with the change in administration in Washington.
Universal school meals are now seemingly within reach as a solution to child hunger and many long-standing problems with the lunch program, including its meager reimbursement rates, its narrow window of eligibility, and its failure to prevent lunch shaming. But are universal free meals the panacea that advocates are searching for? And what will it take to make them a reality?
“We want to build on what’s going on right now, and we think it’s important for the incoming administration to focus on making sure that school breakfast and lunch are reaching the kids in need,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC.
Community Eligibility Provision: First Inroads into Universal Meals
Free school meals have long been seen as a way to ensure nutrition security in children, rectify racial inequities, and improve learning outcomes.
The movement made major inroads in 2010, when former First Lady Michelle Obama took on the issue of child hunger and nutrition. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — which she championed — authorized funding for innovative approaches, like the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), in the school lunch and breakfast programs.
CEP allows schools to offer free meals to all students without collection of the meal applications normally required for free and reduced-priced meals. To qualify, at least 40 percent of students had to be eligible for free meals, based on their participation in other means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Nearly 31,000 schools across the country participated in CEP during the 2019-2020 academic year, serving 15 million children, or 28 percent of the 52 million children enrolled in schools participating in the national school breakfast and lunch programs, according to a USDA spokesperson. Most of those children are enrolled in public schools, though a small percentage of the 97,000 schools that operate both the breakfast and lunch programs are charter or nonprofit private schools.
The program provides a window into the potential benefits that could accrue from a universal meal policy. Take for example, the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Orange County, California, a moderate-sized district with 33 schools and 25,000 students. Nine of its schools participate in CEP.
Suzanne Morales, director of nutrition services for the Placentia-Yorba Linda district, told Civil Eats, “The best thing about CEP is it really removes the stigma of being in the cafeteria. You don’t have to worry about your peers and looking different.” She also notes that the guaranteed reimbursements from USDA have helped the district financially by eliminating unpaid meal balances in the nine schools.
Unlike other school district budget items, school meal programs are run as separate businesses, and they depend on federal reimbursements for every meal they serve. What’s more, the amount they receive is fixed, at about $3.50 per lunch, and must cover staff and overhead expenses as well as the food. When families cannot pay, school districts are left with unpaid balances, which can lead to lunch shaming, lunch debt, and children going hungry.
Morales noted that, before the pandemic, absenteeism has gone down in CEP schools in her district. Studies have also shown improved nutritional outcomes, including reduced obesity in low-income children in CEP schools, as well as improved academic performance.
Finally, CEP helps reach children in families who are on the cusp, but not quite eligible for free meals. To qualify, federal guidelines say a family of four can earn no more than $34,060 (or 130 percent of the national poverty level). Families living in communities with higher living costs — like Orange County — may earn too much to qualify, but still struggle to provide nutritious meals to their children.
USDA Waivers: The Pilot for Universal Meals
When the pandemic hit, and school meal programs scrambled to provide meals remotely, their incomes plummeted. The USDA issued several nationwide waivers, funded by the two 2020 coronavirus relief packages passed by Congress, to give schools maximum flexibility.
For Pratt-Heavner, these waivers were the “pilot,” for universal free school meals, and extending them into the future is critical for the nation’s recovery. “Everyone is concerned about loss of learning during the pandemic,” she says. “School meals are going to be more important than ever to make sure students are fueled for learning, and more families than ever will depend on them.”
Today, up to 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, are food insecure, with Black, Latinx, and Native American communities disproportionately impacted, according to Feeding America.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the USDA suggested it is open to considering universal free meals, noting the agency stands ready to work with Congress on any legislation put forward. “USDA will be reviewing the impact of school meal flexibilities, including widespread access to free school meals provided during the pandemic,” the statement read. “What we learn from that review may help inform future policy decisions for providing equitable access to school meals, including the possibility of universal free school meals.”
Making Universal Meals a Reality
No one can say how large the true price tag of universal free meals would be. In 2019, close to 29 million children received school lunch at a cost of $18.7 billion, according to the USDA. And no one knows how many of the nation’s 52 million students in schools participating in the school lunch program would opt for free school meals.
Morales told Civil Eats she was surprised that not everybody participated in the lunch program when schools adopted CEP. “There are many barriers to participating in a meal program,” she said, even one that is free.
USDA analyses of the past year will be important for getting a sense of the potential price tag.
When it comes to political support for the measure, Pratt-Heavner and FitzSimons say it’s too early to identify legislative champions for universal meals. But they have been speaking with Biden Administration officials, however, and both Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act in 2019 when lunch shaming became a national issue.
While they build political support for universal school meals, SNA is also calling for an extension of the USDA waiver into the next academic year. Pratt-Heavner says that school nutrition programs need that certainty. “Families have adjusted to receiving meals at no charge. The impact of going back to the application and verification process is going to be a big hurdle,” she said.
She also noted that some districts are already seeing a decline in applications for free and reduced meals for the coming year, because families have grown accustomed to not having to fill out the paperwork. Children in need may therefore miss out, if the waiver isn’t extended, and school districts may suffer further financial losses.
Rebuilding Democracy with Lunch for All
Alice Waters, founder of the Edible Schoolyard Project and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, and a chef, author, and activist, argues that schools can offer nutritious, organic, locally sourced meals to all students at no extra cost to traditional meal programs, if they focus on serving more plant-based meals.
“We have to think of meats as a condiment, or maybe a special occasion at home sometimes, and we have to think of cheese [in the same way], as we balance the budget. But there are foods that we could cook from around the world,” she says, mentioning hummus and the Mediterranean diet.
Children enjoy hummus, spicy beans, and grains, says Waters, “foods that people have been nourishing themselves with since the beginning of civilization.”
Gasper, in Wisconsin, agrees. His menu incorporates locally sourced meat — the boxes of hamburger and sausage he received? They came from pigs and cows raised by one of his district’s high-school seniors — through the farm to school program, which works closely with Future Farmers of America (FFA) to purchase local foods produced by students with school district funds. But he also serves a lot of vegetables, like the Brussels sprouts that he roasts with kosher salt and garlic, and the radishes, sunflower sprouts, and lettuce that he grows in the school district’s greenhouse.
Kids love the Brussels sprouts he says, calling it “a huge victory” when parents ask for the recipe because their children want to eat them at home. “We’re teaching a whole generation how to eat well and healthy, which is really going to have a lasting impact on the health of our nation,” he says.
Waters takes an even wider view. She says the idea behind the Edible Schoolyard Project was to build a cafeteria where all students would eat the same food, and that food would be grown by the children or connected to what they were learning in their classrooms.
“Public education is probably our last truly democratic institution,” Waters said. “Every child has to go to school, and so how do you engage them to learn the values that we need to live together on the planet . . . and to really rebuild our democracy?”
Implementation wouldn’t be easy, says Orange County’s Morales, who adds that schools would have to ensure they have the refrigeration space, staff, cafeteria capacity to accommodate a large increase in meals served.
But, she said, “I don’t think you’ll find a nutrition services director who’s not willing to take those challenges on to feed more students.”