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More states are offering — or pondering — free universal lunch

After the federal waiver providing universal free lunch expired, states like California, Colorado, Maine started looking for ways to keep the anti-hunger effort alive

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Apples and orange slices rest in trays for student lunch at the Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School, in Essex Junction, Vt.

Apples and orange slices rest in trays for student lunch at the Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School, in Essex Junction, Vt., Thursday, June 9, 2022. Federally funded universal free meals at schools ended in September, but a growing number of states are adopting or considering their own universal free school meals programs.

Lisa Rathke, Associated Press

Federally funded universal free meals at schools ended in September. But a hearty share of states has found ways to ensure that students are fed — and a growing number are adopting or considering their own universal free school meals programs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools closed and students learned remotely, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to keep meals available. It gave schools some flexibility and also removed the cost for all students.

The waivers guaranteed free school meals for close to 30 million U.S. students during the pandemic, as The New York Times reported this week. But those waivers expired at the beginning of the school year.

According to an article by the Food and Reporting Network, published by NPR, “Once free meals were in place, albeit temporarily, many advocates thought that they would at least remain that way for the rest of the pandemic — if not longer. That didn’t turn out to be the case; this spring, Republicans blocked an extension of the waivers that allowed schools to serve free meals to all, which made the prospect of legislation establishing universal school meals remote.”

And that, combined with the rising cost of food, which has outpaced wages, has made the cost of school meals hard for some families to manage — particularly those in the gap between qualifying for the traditional free and reduced-price federal meal program and being able to shoulder the cost easily themselves.

“Even as some parents have seen their wages increase and the criteria for free and reduced-price meals expand, those boons have done little to blunt the impact of rising food costs,” the Times said. It noted that between the 2019-20 school year and now, “the income eligibility for free and reduced-price meals has increased by about 7.8%. Average hourly wage growth in that same period grew by 15.1%. Consumer prices, though, have risen by 15.4%, and food prices by 20.2%, surpassing wage growth.”

The end of universal school lunch also means a resumption of paperwork to determine who’s eligible for free or reduced-price meals. And some experts say that stigma attached to kids who receive free or reduced-price meals resumed, too.

States including California, Colorado and Maine decided to make universal free meals permanent, filling in the gaps above what the federal government pays. Others — a list that includes Washington, D.C., Virginia and Minnesota, among others — are considering changes that would make feeding students a priority without regard to family income.

Students and hunger

Research published in 2021 in the journal Nutrients reviewed numerous studies to see what they found about free school meals and various outcomes for kids. The research, a collaboration from across the United States, “suggests that universal free school meals benefit students, particularly those who are food-insecure and/or near eligible for free meals in existing means-tested school meal models. The majority of studies in the current review found that universal free school meals were associated with increases in participation and improved diet quality and food security, and conversely, were associated with either no change or improved BMI.”

A lot of families are struggling with the high price of food. And the Times reported that about 88% of public schools are operating a meal program this year, compared to 95% last year.

“That can create a vicious cycle in which lower participation translates to higher costs per meal, forcing schools to raise the price of a meal and squeezing out even more families, said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research and Action Center, which routinely talks to schools about their nutrition programs,” the article said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said its preliminary data shows that the cost of school nutrition programs borne by the government rose from $18.7 billion in 2019 to $28.7 billion in the 2022 school year.

State action or plans

The National Conference of State Legislatures reported last summer that 20 states have considered or passed universal free school meals. California, Colorado, Maine and Vermont “were the first states to implement such programs. When the national meal waivers end, these states will pay for all student meals, regardless of income.” It noted then that New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina had bills pending.

A Minnesota House committee last week advanced a proposal to provide breakfast and lunch at school for free to all students. Some Republicans have supported instead raising the income cap to help families struggling with the cost of food. That measure failed, according to CBS News.

The state would pay the costs in excess of what the federal government pays.

“What would you rather we spend our tax money on?” Mandi Jung, a seventh grade teacher in St. Paul, told the committee, as reported by CBS News. “We have a moral imperative as a society to take care of our most vulnerable community members and sometimes that shows up as a carton of chocolate milk, 14 baby carrots and a grilled cheese sandwich.”

Other states, including Washington, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Kentucky, have taken different steps to expand access to free school meals, though not all students benefit.

In Virginia schools, where half the students qualify for free or reduced-price programs, schools offer an Afterschool Meal Program, too. There, too, schools are banned from keeping kids out of extracurricular activities because of unpaid meal fees. South Carolina said parents can’t be sent to collection over unpaid meal fees and New York barred legal action, as well, the conference reported.

Politico recently reported that “Minnesota, Vermont and Washington, among other states, have tried to step in where the federal government left off. They’re banking on above-average budgets, new legislative sessions and some federal funds to make sure school dishes come at no cost to any child who wants a meal.”

Minnesota has a large budget surplus — close to $18 billion — and some lawmakers believe that should go to anti-hunger initiatives. Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, agrees. If a bill before the state legislature passes, the state would make up the difference between the cost of meals overall and what the federal government pays.

Colorado’s permanent universal free school meal programs got bipartisan voter support to tax wealthier residents to fund the program. Maine and California also made free meals permanent.

Other states, including Vermont, have already created an extension that would cover this school year and some of them are looking at permanent programs in the future.

Politico also said that “several states could have a big backer for free school meals. Tusk Philanthropies’ Solving Hunger, which was founded by venture capitalist and political strategist Bradley Tusk, is supporting universal school meal campaigns in 2023 for Vermont, North Carolina, Connecticut and New York.”

The Washington Post reported that the Washington, D.C., council is considering free lunches for nearly 100,000 students, at a cost of about $8 million a year.

“The free lunch proposal follows plans to waive city bus fares, making D.C. the most populous city in the country to offer free public transit. The move was celebrated by critics of a citywide program, called Kids Ride Free, that allows students to ride Metro trains and buses at no cost, but not the adults who accompany them on their commutes to school,” the article said.

Lawmakers in Virginia and Washington have both introduced bills to provide universal free meals to students, per Food Service Director. “In Virginia, HB1967 would require schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students unless they receive written instruction from a student’s parent or guardian to not offer the meals. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education,” the article said.

ABC affiliate WSIL reported that Missouri students in the Charleston School District, which has a high share of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, has been providing free universal meals for eight years. The new proposal would expand it to the rest of the state’s schools.