Authors: Angela Taylor and Tonantzin Juarez
A year ago, Weitzman’s policy team published a policy brief, “Addressing Food Insecurity in School-Based Settings: Keeping Youth Fed as Costs Rise.” This brief discussed initiatives and federal programs that helped feed school-aged children during the pandemic and what policies needed to be implemented to keep children fed during the period of increasing inflation. One of the policies discussed was the implementation of universal free school meals (USM) during the pandemic. Food insecurity increased during the early months of the pandemic, especially for Black and Latino households with children. To address the rise in food insecurity during the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided waivers for schools to provide free meals to students regardless of income during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. However, these waivers ended on June 30, 2022, and some schools went back to charging for meals for the 2022-2023 school year. Since then, several states have implemented policies continuing USM for students. This month we highlight states that have passed USM policies, the benefits of USM, school meal policies at the federal level, and challenges/lessons learned while implementing USM in schools.
States That Have Passed Universal Free School Meals
According to Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) Data, eight states (California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, Michigan, and Massachusetts) have passed permanent legislation to offer free school meals for all students. The state of Nevada has extended free school meals for the 2023-2024 school year. Meanwhile in Illinois, the state legislature has passed a bill allowing K-12 students to get free school lunches; however, as of August the governor has not signed the bill into law. A shift in 2022 at the federal level prompted states to pass laws to keep school meals free. California and Maine were the first states to take advantage of this, followed by Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, Michigan and Massachusetts. FRAC reports that during the spring of 2023, over 20 states proposed bills to create universal school meals programs
Benefits of Universal Free School Meals
Research supports the benefits of USM among students, which include decreased child hunger, reduced stigma, and elimination of school meal debt. However, students are not the only ones to benefit. For parents and guardians, not having to worry about two meals a day means saving money on groceries, resulting in some extra money they can either save for emergencies or spend on other necessities. Particularly among lower-income families, free meals can result in improved household income due to not having to worry about student meal debt. In their Large School District Report for 2023, FRAC reports how free meals also improved employee morale as they don’t have to tell students when they owe money. Data from California’s 2022-2023 school year showed that free meal programs increase the number of students in general that eat breakfast and lunch. Since its implementation, California has seen a steady increase in the number of meals they serve each year.
Numerous studies have also looked at how school meals are economically viable that can result in increased savings. For example, implementing Schools Meals for All eliminates bureaucratic paperwork that can result in: administrative cost savings, reduced time spent on processing/verifying applications, save cafeteria staff time and stress spent sorting paperwork and contacting eligible families. At the Federal level, USM increased meal reimbursement by 13.5%, with schools participating spending 67 cents less per lunch served and 58 cents less per breakfast after accounting for food, labor and administrative costs.
Policies, Challenges, and Lessons Learned
Policies at the federal level would help states implement universal free school meals. Several legislation has been introduced in 2023 such as, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023 (establishes free school meals for all students), the School Meals Expansion Act (expands the Community Eligibility Provision), the No Hungry Kids in Schools Act (establishes a statewide community eligibility), and the Expanding Access to School Meals Act of 2023 (increases the eligibility of free school meals to 200% of the federal poverty level). Congress should seek to pass these bills to assist states in implementing universal free school meals. With more states implementing USM for the current school year, more data will be available in the future about the benefits of USM to students, their families and schools.
While there are benefits to USM, there are challenges with implementing USM and lessons that can be learned. Two studies assessed the challenges California and Maine experienced with implementing USM during the 2021-2022 school year. The greatest challenges California and Maine experienced were obtaining food, determining the amount of food, supplies/equipment, financial sustainability of meals, and staffing (particularly for California). Both states reported their needs to address the challenges of implementing USM. California stated needing cultural diversity in meal planning and Maine reported needing more resources to make meals more appealing to students. Both states reported needing additional facilities and equipment. At the local level, the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), found ways to address some of these challenges for the 2022-2023 school year.
SCUSD has found innovative ways to address funding, improve costs, and make operations more streamlined. Their Central Kitchen provides 43,000 meals daily, distributed to 80 district sites serving 43,380 students. SCUSD has a warehouse allowing them to buy food directly instead of going through a middle person, developed software to track inventory and expiration dates, and established relationships with local farmers, benefiting them financially and increasing the quality of meals. States that have not implemented USM, but are seeking to, can learn from SCUSD to reduce challenges and improve costs. Further, as more school districts implement USM, we should also have more models that can serve as examples for other school districts that are looking to implement universal free school meals.