Free school meals were a godsend for Lynnea Hawkins long before the pandemic. Her son was living with his father in a tiny northern Maine town, and his father, who receives disability insurance, is “really bad at budgeting,” she said. “There were times when my son was calling me [saying], ‘Mom, there’s no food in the house.’” Free breakfast and lunch at school “took a little of the stress off,” she said.
But every year she had to send in paperwork to prove to his school that their family qualified. In order to be eligible, a family of four has to make $36,075 a year or less. Her son had to then carry those papers with him and hand them to a teacher in front of all the other children, some of whom were quite wealthy. Her son is large for his age and “because he was big they would say hurtful things because it was easy,” she said. Being enrolled in free school meals was “another thing for them to torment him with.”
That all changed in the pandemic. After Congress passed legislation in the spring of 2020, the Department of Agriculture was able to issue waivers to allow schools a lot of flexibility in their nutrition programs, including, crucially, giving free meals to all students regardless of their families’ income. All of Hawkins’s son’s classmates also started getting free meals and no family had to send in any paperwork to be shamefully handed over to teachers. “All kids were eligible,” she said. “For a little while that went away.”
But for millions of children across the country, that shame and stigma has now returned with the end of the waivers. After twice extending them on a bipartisan basis during the pandemic, Congress voted to extend the changes only through this past summer and then get rid of the provision making meals free to all students at the start of this schoolyear, a change introduced at the behest of Republicans who claim free meals for all are no longer necessary.
Schools are now shouldering the administrative cost of processing all the paperwork they didn’t have to deal with during the pandemic at the same time that other costs for food and staff are rising. And students across the country are getting cut off from free meals they had come to rely on, some of whom have families whose incomes put them just a couple of dollars above the cutoff. Hunger and hardship will surely rise.
When the pandemic first forced schools to shut their doors in the spring of 2020, their nutrition programs had to scramble to keep providing kids with food. All of a sudden they started having to pack meals and allow families to pick them up with social distancing in place. To make it work, Congress allowed the Department of Agriculture to issue waivers allowing schools to switch over to a model they can rely on in natural disasters or other emergency closings as well as during the summer: all children at qualifying sites become eligible. Schools “did not have the capacity to be individually qualifying kids and figuring out if that child was eligible for free or reduced price meals,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center. Officials “wanted interaction between meal site staff and families picking up meals as quick and seamless as possible.”
The next school year was similar, with many students learning virtually, and even places that brought kids back into the school wanted cafeteria lines to move as fast as possible. Meanwhile, schools have been facing a number of other costly challenges with their nutrition programs, including supply chain disruptions, climbing inflation and higher labor costs with staff shortages.
Eliminating the work required to collect and process the paperwork to determine which kids are eligible and which aren’t was a huge help. “One of the easiest things to do is to feed any child who asks for a meal,” FitzSimons said. “It reduces paperwork and administration.” Staff, in turn took the extra time and devoted it to other things: developing new recipes, incorporating plant-based meals, even rolling out QR codes giving students, parents and teachers information about the menus. When they “didn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars in the administrative burden of tracking kids,” said Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, “they did some really innovative, cool things to make things better.”
Free school meals also have a well proven track record of helping students learn and develop, which is even more important as they overcome learning impacts from the pandemic shutdowns. As a report by the Food Research & Action Center put it, “Students who participate in school breakfast programs have improved attendance, behavior, academic performance and academic achievement as well as decreased tardiness, based on decades of research on the topic.” School breakfast staves off chronic absenteeism while boosting reading achievement and behavior. Universal free meals are especially important for reducing discipline problems.
The waivers also helped keep hunger at bay even as millions of families lost their jobs and their livelihoods during the pandemic. Among 62 large school districts, 95 percent said the waivers decreased student hunger. Food insecurity actually held steady in 2020 and 2021 despite dramatic economic shocks, and food hardship for families with children actually fell in 2021. Free school meals have long proven to reduce hunger and help parents afford the food they need.
In the same survey of large school districts, 85 percent said the waivers also erased stigma. “We got rid of the entire stigma of school meals,” Wilson said. “It cleared the slate and said we value every child in our community and every child gets access to food.” Before the pandemic, in some districts children who received free meals had to eat in a separate room just for children on the program, risking shame and losing time with friends. Instead, schools were able to integrate meals into the school day—offering breakfast at the front door as everyone entered or in the classroom itself. “It helps develop a culture in the school building in which school meals are encouraged for all students,” said Eleni Towns, associate director at No Kid Hungry.
But now that Congress has ended the waivers, school districts have to once again invest time and resources into the administrative burden of determining which children are and aren’t eligible for meals, both by collecting paperwork and then verifying eligibility every day. It’s a “labor intensive process” to collect applications, FitzSimons said. Districts have to “invest a lot of staff capacity and time,” Towns said. Parents haven’t had to apply for free meals since the fall of 2019, and some families with very young children have never had to do it. Some parents may struggle with the application process, especially if English is not their first language or they’re dealing with housing instability, and others won’t apply for fear of the stigma. Districts have told Towns that the response rates are coming in much lower than they expected, “so they’re worried parents and kids are falling through the cracks,” she said.
Schools are also having to spend time collecting fees from those who only qualify for reduced price meals. Lunch debt is bound to start piling up. FitzSimons’s organization is already starting to hear that those balances are accruing. Everyone is braced for the local news stories about school lunch debt—such as throwing kids’ meals in the trash, only giving them cold jelly sandwiches, or even stamping “I need lunch money” on their skin—to start getting published again.
And families are getting cut off from a lifeline. “The eligibility for free school meals is too low, and it leaves many families who need access to free school meals out,” FitzSimons said. Her organization is already hearing that many families that received free meals last year were encouraged to apply this year, only to find out they made too much qualify. A family of three can earn no more than $29,939 to be able to receive free meals. If it earns more than $42,606 it won’t be able to get reduced price meals, either. “You’re going to be struggling to put food on the table if you’re a family of three making $31,00, or maybe even $40,000,” FitzSimons pointed out. Before the pandemic, over 20 percent of families with children who were food insecure didn’t qualify for free or reduced price meals.
That means more children will go hungry. Families are struggling to put food on the table with inflation so high and things like the expanded Child Tax Credit payments from last year expired. Free school meals “eases the overall household budget so much at a time when families are really being squeezed,” FitzSimons said.
Some states have stepped in where Congress has failed to act. High-poverty school districts can opt into what’s called the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows them to serve free meals to all students, and FitzSimons has seen many districts decide to join during the pandemic. Oregon passed legislation that expanded free school meal eligibility to families earning up to 300 percent of the poverty line, and New Jersey just recently expanded it to 200 percent of the poverty level. Meanwhile, some states are passing legislation to keep free meals going for all. California and Maine passed legislation making such a program permanent, while Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont have done so for one year. Colorado voters will weigh in on whether to offer all students free meals in November, and other states are working on campaigns, too.
Congress could also act, but the chances aren’t high. The House Committee on Education and Labor has passed the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, which would reauthorize the child nutrition program and expand the community eligibility provision so more schools can opt in while also increasing school districts’ reimbursement rates. But although the last reauthorization expired in 2015, and it’s supposed to be reauthorized every five years, it’s unclear if it will get done before the end of the year.
What the pandemic proved is that it’s not just possible, but smart policy, to offer all students free meals. “We’ve had this strange test case within the context of the pandemic,” Towns said. “We’ve shown that it works.”
Hawkins is among the lucky ones since she lives in Maine, where free school meals for all are now permanent. But she knows the acute pinch of hunger well. Her refrigerator and pantry emptied out recently before her monthly food stamps benefit arrived. She didn’t realize until it finally came “how much it was weighing on me,” she said. She immediately went grocery shopping and filled her empty cabinets, refrigerator and freezer. Now she doesn’t have to worry that her son might get up for a midnight snack and eat the next day’s dinner. “It’s such a weight off knowing that there’s food,” she said. “If nothing else, there’s food.”
She knows there are plenty of other parents who shoulder that weight, even heavier for those who now can’t rely on free meals at school to help keep their children fed. She has neighbors whose incomes would have put them just a few dollars over the limit, denying them free school meals, had her state not continued the program on its own. “That’s what scares me, is being five or ten dollars away from being able to guarantee two meals a day to your kids,” she said.
“I can’t imagine who would think it’s okay to take food away from kids,” she said. “Our kids here already have enough struggles with poor housing and low-income families. They don’t need to be hungry too.”
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation. Her writing has appeared in Time Magazine, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, the New Republic, Slate, and others, and she won a 2016 Exceptional Merit in Media Award from the National Women’s Political Caucus. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets. She was previously Economic Editor at ThinkProgress, Editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog, and a contributor at Forbes. She also worked as a financial reporter and head of the energy sector at mergermarket, an online newswire that is part of the Financial Times group.