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What If Free School Meals Became the Norm After the Pandemic Ends?

Advocates argue that a permanent free meal program in public schools would help eliminate child hunger.

A woman and her daughter walk from her elementary school after picking up her breakfast and lunch in Revere, Massachusetts, on December 11, 2020.

Yakima, Washington — Tracy Renecker has been working almost nonstop since the coronavirus pandemic set in. A kitchen manager with the 16,000-student school district serving this central Washington city, Renecker has been ordering ingredients, packing entrees and sides, and filling grocery sacks to build the five-breakfast, five-lunch kits passed out at the drive-up distribution point outside Washington Middle School, where she works.

Renecker knows what the bags of cut vegetables, single-serve cereal boxes and heat-and-eat bowls mean to parents picking them up each week. They are a lifeline to families, including her own. The school meal program “helps to stretch our money,” said Renecker, a former nursing assistant raising a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old in Yakima.

“I was a hungry child at one point, and I would hate to see any child go hungry,” she said. “I know they can’t learn when they’re worried about when they’re going to be fed.”

Yakima, an agricultural hub surrounded by orchards amid dry hills, was hit hard by both the pandemic and the attendant economic collapse. Summer brought spikes in infections — at least three of which sent children to the hospital — and unemployment, which nearly doubled in the area.

Many Yakima families qualified for food stamps or other forms of federal assistance before the pandemic hit, and that softened the blow in one specific way: The city’s schools already offered meals to all students for free, year-round. That’s because they participate in several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, including one allowing school districts where more than 40 percent of children are in households that rely on social services like food stamps to feed every student at no cost to families.

Hundreds of American school districts that qualify for that USDA program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, don’t join it, largely due to cost concerns. Reimbursement rates to school districts are based on the percentage of students receiving social supports, and districts close to the 40 percent cutoff may end up spending more than they otherwise would.

Today, though, nearly every school in the country can hand out meals for free, thanks to the emergency extension of a USDA school food program meant to provide no-cost meals to kids during the summer. After months of uncertainty, USDA announced on Oct. 9 that the expansion would last until the end of the school year.

The reprieve highlights an emergent truth: Schools feed America’s children. And the pandemic has forced schools toward providing free food to all students, long the dream of those fighting child hunger.

“That’s the best way to operate school nutrition programs,” said Crystal FitzSimons, a policy analyst for child nutrition at the Food Research & Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization lobbying for anti-hunger programs. “School meals are just as important to students’ ability to succeed in school as textbooks and transportation.”

Early in the pandemic, the USDA dropped strict rules dictating how and when meals could be served while allowing schools to hand out a week’s worth of meals at a time and rapidly expanding food support programs. It hasn’t been enough to stop hunger from spiking to historic highs, but it has taken the edge off for millions of kids. (While other USDA programs help feed adult caregivers, typically schools provide meals only for children.)

In normal times, 2.5 million children are “food insecure.” Today, experts say child hunger has skyrocketed. While firm data is not yet available, surveys taken over the summer found that around 40 percent of families with young children worried about food, a fourfold increase over pre-pandemic levels, according to Children’s HealthWatch, a research and policy organization run through Boston Medical Center. And Census Bureau surveys show that children in 1 in 6 American households were not eating enough in June because their families couldn’t afford food, according to a Brookings Institution review of those responses. Brookings estimated as many as 14 million children were going hungry in June.

Feeding that many kids is expensive. USDA has yet to say how much spending has increased since the start of the pandemic, and it was already spending plenty. A pre-Covid estimate projected that $25.5 billion would be spent during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 for all nutrition initiatives aimed at children, including the $13.5 billion school lunch program.

There have been no updated estimates. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service, which includes the school meals programs, stopped releasing expenditures this summer, citing “significant issues with the accuracy of state-reported data as a result of Covid-19.

The rise in hunger comes down to two elements: need and access, said Kelley McDonough, a senior program manager for No Kid Hungry, an anti-hunger advocacy group. The need created by the pandemic’s economic shock is unprecedented, McDonough said. At the same time, school closures and stay-at-home orders have disrupted how Americans access the country’s web of nutrition programs.

“Many families, especially those who are new to need, may not know that these programs exist or how to apply [for] them,” McDonough said. “Some families may forgo accessing these programs because they feel a sense of stigma, shame or distrust at accepting help in feeding their children.”

Opponents of the USDA free meals initiatives argue they end up feeding children from well-to-do homes, spending money better saved or spent on children who are truly in need. Jonathan Butcher, senior policy analyst with Heritage Foundation, a conserative policy engine, said previously that the school meals programs are “ballooning into a federal food entitlement for every child, regardless of need.” Butcher and others argued against Congressional efforts to expand the Community Eligibility Provision program put forward before the USDA expanded its other free meals programs in October.

Serving every child free school meals would remove that stigma, advocates argue. The federal government began buying surplus food for schoolchildren during the Great Depression. In 1946, the National School Lunch Program was launched because many of America’s young men had been too malnourished to serve in the military and commodity prices were dropping rapidly in the postwar economy. Steady expansions since have transformed free school meal programs into a crucial support for children whose caregivers’ incomes don’t fill the pantry. The school-to-stomach link has only strengthened as the science connecting nutrition and learning has advanced.

Early deficiencies in iron and other nutrients have been linked to poor motor and language skills, as well as lasting changes in how children’s brains take shape and how their bodies use dopamine, a neurotransmitter tied to impulse control and pleasure. Hyperactivity and poor memory are also thought to sometimes stem from childhood hunger. None of those conditions is conducive to learning, either in school or at home.

And then there’s the stress of not knowing where the next meal is coming from.

Worry is an early symptom of what those who monitor hunger refer to as “food insecurity,” a spectrum that begins with a person’s concern that they won’t be able to buy food and extends to reduced or missed meals, or “very low food security” in the USDA parlance.

“Food insecurity, it affects the biology of a child’s development at a cellular level,” said Richard Sheward, director of innovative partnerships with Children’s HealthWatch.

Children facing two or more stressors — food insecurity and housing instability often occur in tandem — are nine times as likely to experience developmental delays or poor health as children free of those pressures, Sheward said.

“The federal nutrition programs,” Sheward said, “are really the best medicines we have.”

While food banks offer some relief, the USDA’s food initiatives have 10 times their funding and are best positioned to help hungry families, Sheward said. The USDA school meals programs make up 25 percent of the agency’s overall food assistance spending.

School-based nutrition services have waxed as other federal programs meant to provide for American children wane. Per capita federal spending on children is only about $5,000 a year, with Medicaid, the earned income tax credit, and food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) forming the key supports available to financially stressed families. Welfare, which assisted 68 percent of America’s poorest families before the 1996 reform, now reaches less than a quarter of them.

Back in Yakima on a recent Wednesday afternoon, a stream of SUVs and minivans rolled up outside the shuttered two-story brick middle school where Renecker works. Drivers flashed a school ID, signaled how many children they would be feeding, and popped the back hatch for delivery. Many of those handing out food were kitchen workers and idled school bus drivers, all of whom have been braving the coronavirus to pass out meal kits since March.

“If we’re not feeding them, a lot of times that means they’re not getting fed,” said Stacey Locke, Yakima School District’s assistant superintendent of operations.

By that logic, a similar scene now plays out regularly at 90,000 schools-turned-food distribution sites around the United States.

Describing school meals as “the frontline defense” against childhood hunger, Northwestern University economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach said families of color have been hardest hit by the spike in food insecurity. Almost one in four Black families with children were short on food, according to Census Bureau data included in a report she wrote in September.

“To our great shame, it’s essentially always the case that Black families have twice the rates of food insecurity as white families,” Schanzenbach said. “It should not make us complacent, but it does help us understand that it is not different with Covid, which indicates it isn’t going to go away.”

While Schanzenbach said the federal government hasn’t ramped up social services spending enough to match the clear need, offering free school meals across the country is an unprecedented step.

Even before the pandemic, a third of all schools were enrolled in the Community Eligibility Provision — the one that allows high-poverty schools like those in Yakima to serve meals at no cost to students. School lunch was already free to students at these schools. Often, breakfast was free, too, and sometimes dinner.

Created in 2010 and launched widely in 2014, the program was America’s first big step toward making school meals free for all. Nutrition was a focus of the Obama administration, one led by first lady Michelle Obama, and the creation of the schoolwide free meals program was a signature accomplishment of that campaign. While spending on USDA nutrition programs generally has declined by $14 billion since hitting a high of $110 billion in 2013, much of that decline is attributable to the economic recovery. Spending on child nutrition programs has steadily grown during the Trump administration, in part because of rising participation in free and reduced-price meals programs.

The USDA initiative is open to schools and districts where 40 percent or more of students come from homes relying on social supports like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the successor to food stamps, or who are homeless or living in foster homes.

Proponents of the no-cost meals program expected enrollment to spike due to the pandemic, until USDA announced it would pay for free meals at all schools, making the need for individual districts to enroll in the program moot. In the long run, though, child nutrition advocates hope more schools will sign on to the permanent free meals program.

For districts at the lower edge of eligibility, the free meals program can prove costly because the amount of funding provided is tied to the number of children receiving other social services, said FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center. USDA covers all meal expenses for an enrolled school or district where 62.5% of students come from homes that receive social supports. Institutions with fewer qualifying students may have to pick up part of the meals’ costs, though FitzSimons said administrative savings often mean the program makes financial sense in those as well.

FitzSimons said she and others with her employer, a 50-year-old advocacy organization fighting poverty-related hunger, have supported legislation that would increase USDA’s reimbursement rates to make the program tenable for more districts.

Making food free also allows schools to innovate.

Across the country, an estimated 3 million students start the day hungry, and many arrive too late to eat breakfast served in school cafeterias. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which serves free meals to all students, the solution administrators settled on was eating in class.

Before the pandemic, students arrived each morning to bagged breakfasts waiting in the classrooms or on carts parked in the entries. Students at 36 of the district’s 73 schools participate in the flexible breakfast program — eating as they wait for the morning bell or in their seats as class begins.

All that would have been impossible if the schools had to find a way to make students pay, said Nadine L. Mann, chief financial director for child nutrition programs at the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. Though schools still often collect applications for free or reduced-price meals because the data is used to direct federal and state funding, free meals for all students, Mann said, are just “so much more efficient.”

No-charge meals also address another persistent friction point for American schools, meal debt.

Children who run up a tab for school meals are forced to take second-rate “alternative meals” or are cut off entirely from food service. That includes children who are signed up to receive reduced-price meals but who still must make a 30- or 40-cent copay.

Figures collected by the industry’s leading professional group, the School Nutrition Association, show that about 87 percent of districts that are not enrolled in the USDA no-cost meals program carry meal debt they’re required to collect. Around a quarter of districts with all schools enrolled in the program reported meal debt.

“I’ve worked long enough to remember the days when I had to make phone calls to parents and say, ‘You owe money. We’re not going to feed your child,’ ” Mann said.

Outrage over meal debt in part motivated several of the school nutrition bills that Del. Danica Roem has put forward in her three years in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Roem, who represents the Manassas area, backed bills blocking schools from pushing alternative meals on indebted children or forcing children to throw away food they’d been served but couldn’t pay for. The Democrat also sponsored a bill, signed into law Oct. 13 after passing unanimously, that will require as many as 180 schools in Virginia to join the USDA no-cost meal program.

“This is the only way to guarantee that no child goes hungry,” she continued. “If you go to a public school in America, meals should be guaranteed to you, just like a school bus is guaranteed to you.”

While administrative issues and cost concerns stopped some school leaders from signing on to the program, Roem said a handful simply believed children should pay for their food. It is a position for which she has no patience.

“I’ve got to eat. You’ve got to eat. We’ve all got to eat,” Roem said. “Feed the damn kids.”

This story about free school meals was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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