For the last two years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided federal waivers that offer free school lunches year-round to all U.S. children who attend public school. This program has allowed an estimated 10 million kids to be able to eat lunch every single day—even when school isn't in session during the summer.
The impetus for the waivers began during the onset of the pandemic and how children who weren't in school would be fed—the free lunches disproportionately benefitted low-income students of color. The free lunch waivers are set to expire on June 30, and Congress has yet to extend the program.
According to a pre-pandemic survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association, millions of U.S. families can't afford to pay for full-price school lunches. Unfortunately, as many as 75% of school districts punish students who can't pay for their meals by placing them in debt. The national public school meal debt is $262 million a year.
Food insecurity and free school lunches
Data accrued by Feeding America finds that one in five food-insecure students lives in a home that isn't eligible for a free—or even reduced—school lunch. This means that there are many families across the country who can't afford to feed their children but still don't qualify for free or discounted lunch programs—until the universal free lunch program was put in place in 2020. In the U.S., one in seven children is considered food-insecure.
The argument made for free school lunch is that well-fed students are healthier and perform better academically. Should there even be an argument over feeding hungry kids, though?
Students from low-income households can still technically access free lunches at school, but will have to submit an application that includes their financial information. No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit working to solve problems of hunger and poverty in the United States and around the world, points out that this process is "complicated," and can make students feel othered and embarrassed in the lunch line among other kids.
“Particularly for kids in communities where there were lower to moderate poverty rates, there’s a huge stigma attached to free meals and parents maybe didn’t want their kids identified that way,” Jillien Meier, the director of No Kid Hungry, tells The Guardian.
The USDA's child nutrition waivers ensured no student had to feel this way or worry about how they were going to eat. Under the waiver program, families didn't have to fill out applications for their kids to receive free lunches. Schools were also able to expand their food distribution efforts, including handing out curbside meals when schools were closed during the pandemic.
The average cost of a single school meal costs elementary students $2.48, according to The Counter, though these costs vary widely by state and district—in California, one school district charges students up to $6.80 per meal.
These costs add up, especially as prices for food surge across the country. These prices can also be steep for low-income families who pay for lunches for multiple children.
“I think we’re going to see in real time the summer hunger crisis grow, and that’s going to give us a preview of what’s going to happen next school year,” Meier says.
Why is the free school lunch program expiring?
The Biden administration did not include an extension for this program in its most recent $1.5 trillion spending bill, despite the fact that the President advocated for extending free school meals into 2023.
According to the Washington Post, Senate Republicans argued that universal lunch was meant to be temporary and say an extension could add to the nation's rising deficit because of rising food prices. (The high cost of food means the same argument could be made for low-income families.)
The Post also reports that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack aggressively pushed for a re-extension during earlier this year, saying that he "made a request to speak to Leader McConnell and Leader McCarthy." Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., tells Politico that GOP leadership would "prefer to let our kids go hungry."
The waivers officially expire on June 30.
In a country where children risk their lives every single day just to attend school, perhaps feeding them shouldn't be an issue.