Free School Meals: When the Feds Step Back, States Step Up
Millions of students returned to school in communities across New York State this month. Most kids I know are happy to be with their friends, meet their new teachers, maybe show off some back-to-school clothes or a new haircut, get back to learning, and do all the other things like sports and clubs that are part of school.
But there’s one crucial thing many students will no longer have access to: free school meals.
For two school years during the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal policy ensured that every student in the nation had access to free school meals. It was a lifeline for many kids and families. I was impressed with how quickly schools managed not only to pivot to online instruction but also to figure out ways to prepare and distribute meals that could be eaten at home.
But that federal policy expired with the start of the new school year. As a result, approximately 2,000 schools serving more than 700,000 students in New York State will no longer be able to provide free school meals to all students. Across the country, schools have reverted to collecting meal fees from students as food prices continue to climb. Families that earn just above the income limits for free meals, but less than a living wage, have been hit hard.
The loss of free school meals could not come at a worse time. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 10 New Yorkers — nearly 2 million people — were food insecure, meaning they lacked consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. In New York City, the number of children visiting food pantries was 55% higher in early 2022 than it was before the pandemic. And groceries these days are expensive; food prices increased more than 10% between August 2021 and August 2022. Families are being forced to make impossible tradeoffs to put food on the table.
As the federal government steps back, states are stepping up to fill the void. This school year, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont are all providing universal school meals to all students.
New York should join this group of leading states. We have plenty to build on. New York City made school lunch free for all of its 1.1 million students, regardless of income, beginning in 2017. Other cities, including Rochester, Albany, and Yonkers, also provide universal free school meals, but approximately 30% of all public school students elsewhere in the State don’t have the same access.
Feeding those students is a smart investment for the State to make. The enormous health and financial benefits associated with the investment in free school meals include:
- They improve physical health, mental wellbeing, and academic performance.
- Students who eat school meals every day have better diets than students who don’t; they eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains.
- With school meals, students’ risk of diet-related disease and health care costs both drop.
- When everyone is eligible for free school meals, the stigma and shame of getting free lunch disappears.
- When meals are free to all, participation in the program increases.
- The costs that schools pay per meal also drop and quality improves because schools can realize larger bulk discounts.
The cost of free school meals for all is a bargain given all those benefits. It is estimated to cost around $200 million in total, or about $275 per student not currently receiving a free meal. Within a State budget in excess of $220 billion, that’s a modest sum to improve the health and education of our children.
The wheels are in motion for New York to make it happen. Legislation has been introduced in the State legislature to provide universal free school meals. A coalition of advocates — led by Hunger Solutions New York and Community Food Advocates — is pushing for policy changes. And the policy has extremely broad public support. A recent statewide NYHealth survey of food and health found that 87% of New York families that participated in school meals in the last 12 months agree that the meals are helpful. Three-quarters say their children like the meals provided, and two-thirds approve of the variety of meals offered. So it’s no wonder that New Yorkers overwhelmingly agree the State should make lunch free for all students: 93% of food-insecure respondents and 83% of food-secure respondents support universal free school meals.
Our schools provide textbooks, pencils, and other supplies to all students; food is the only area in which public schools discriminate by income. Kids shouldn’t feel ashamed if they can’t afford school meals. Making school meals free for all will provide immediate relief to families, support the health and education of children, remove stigma, and plant the seeds for a healthier generation of New Yorkers.