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States and school districts are moving to provide every kid with a free breakfast and lunch, after a popular pandemic-era program from the federal government expired.
For the first time when students in Louisville, Kentucky, returned to school last month, every single one of them was eligible to get a free breakfast and lunch.
It’s a milestone for the Jefferson County Public Schools, which has gradually been introducing free meals for students over the years.
J. Graham Brown School in downtown Louisville was one of the final schools to get universal free meals, which it started offering this school year. “When we were notified that our school was now eligible it felt like we won the lottery,” Angela Parsons, the school’s principal, said in a statement. “This is a victory for equity and families, many of whom may not qualify for the free lunch program but still struggle to provide their child with a full, nutritious lunch each school day.”
Jefferson County Public Schools is participating in the federal Community Eligibility Provision, a program where the federal government picks up the tab for meals for all students in low-income schools rather than on a student-by-student basis. More than 70% of students in the Louisville-area district would qualify for free or reduced lunches even without the universal program, but community eligibility makes the process easier. It cuts back the paperwork for school districts and doesn’t require them to collect lunch fees. The arrangement also reduces the stigma for students receiving a free lunch and often leads to more students getting fed. In Louisville, schools that offer free meals for all generally see a 30% increase in breakfasts served and a 10% uptick for lunches.
The Louisville schools are part of a larger move to increase free meals for students. Thousands more children will be able to get free breakfasts and lunches every day because more states are paying for free meals and because individual districts, like Louisville, are expanding their own efforts to provide universal coverage.
Part of the reason for the nationwide push, said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research & Action Center, or FRAC, is that schools saw the benefit of universal free meals during the pandemic. The federal government paid school districts to offer free meals to students—regardless of income—for the school years that started in 2020 and 2021.
“Schools across the country last year had to go back to the way the school nutrition programs operated before the pandemic, and so many states did not want to go back to it,” she said.
Eight states—California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont—have enacted permanent policies to provide free meals for all students. Nevada is doing so for at least this year. Pennsylvania is providing free school breakfasts for everybody. And Illinois lawmakers authorized universal meals but did not allocate the funding to provide them. Meanwhile, many districts like Louisville have used preexisting federal community eligibility programs to extend universal meals at the school or district level.
“There were nearly 7,000 additional schools that came into community eligibility last school year, about a 21% increase from the year before,” said FitzSimons. That includes schools in states that have rolled out free-to-all programs and schools in states that have not, she said. Nationally, more than 40,000 schools use the federal program for high-poverty student populations.
State Expansion Continues
Massachusetts became the most recent state to roll out full coverage for school meals, when Gov. Maura Healey signed the state budget including the provision last month. The first-term Democratic governor called the initiative “an investment in childhood nutrition that’s also removing a source of stress from our schools and our homes.”
The money for the Massachusetts expansion comes from a 4% income tax on millionaires that voters there approved last year.
A group of Massachusetts school superintendents urged lawmakers to pass the permanent program, citing the state’s experience temporarily offering free meals last year. About 80,000 more students received free lunches in October 2022 than in October 2019, they pointed out.
The federal government provides free and reduced lunches for students whose families have incomes low enough to meet certain thresholds. But in Massachusetts that still leaves out nearly a quarter of students who face food insecurity, the superintendents wrote.
“With the lingering economic impacts over the last few years and increasing food costs, returning to the status quo is not a viable option for these families,” they wrote. “Students would face the twin barriers of cost and stigma.”
According to a recent FRAC analysis of large school districts, the number of students who were able to get free food in schools that have gone back to kid-by-kid systems dropped last year.
Five percent fewer students received a free breakfast in October 2022 compared to April 2022, according to the survey of 91 large school districts in 40 states and Washington, D.C. That amounts to 100,000 fewer students getting breakfast each school day.
The schools also saw a dip in students taking lunch, which amounted to 250,000 fewer children getting free meals between spring and fall of 2022.
“With the loss of many federal waivers, along with ongoing pandemic-related issues in the 2022–2023 school year,” FRAC researchers wrote, “districts continued to face a variety of challenges that decreased students’ access to healthy school meals, such as increased costs and school meal debt, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages. Most districts had to return to a tiered eligibility system that requires them to collect, process and verify school meal applications, and millions of children lost access to free school meals.”
At the national level, members of the Republican Study Committee issued a budget proposal in June that would scale back federal spending on school meal programs. The measure would consolidate the programs into block grants for states.
“The block grant would give states needed flexibility and include a phased-in state cost share, which would incentivize efficient administration to prevent the widespread fraud present in the program and promote the efficient allocation of funds to those who need it most,” the group explained. (An inspector general’s report for the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year found that improper payment rates under the federal school lunch and breakfast programs were about 8%.)
The GOP proposal would eliminate the community eligibility provision that Louisville and other lower-income schools use to provide universal meals.
But FitzSimons said free school meals remain popular with the public, with FRAC polling showing that 63% of voters support making free meals permanently available.
“Parents understand it and think it’s a good idea. School officials think it’s a good idea. Teachers and educators think it’s a good idea. It really is a win-win-win for schools, for families and for kids. Because of the public support, we would encourage Congress to actually act and expand healthy school meals for all,” she said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.