What are healthy school meals for all?
Healthy school meals for all—also known as universal free school meals—allow all enrolled children in a school that operates the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program to receive free breakfast and free lunch, regardless of their family’s income. Healthy school meals for all negate the need for families to apply or schools to verify eligibility for these programs and give flexibility to school nutrition programs so that they can keep feeding kids no matter what the school day structure looks like.
Vice chair, AAP Council on Community Pediatrics
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 30 million children participated in the school meals program every day, and most of those children (almost 80 percent) were from households with low income. When schools closed in the spring of 2020 due the pandemic, there was a real concern that millions of children would lose access to a primary source of nutritious meals and that the loss of school breakfast and lunch would increase those children’s risk of becoming food insecure. In response to this emergency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a series of temporary waivers for school food programs, one of which allowed schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to every student regardless of their family’s income. USDA’s waiver authority expired on August 30, 2022, and so this school year (SY 2022-23) families will again have to prove that their children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals by filling out paperwork.
Director, Culinary and Wellness Service, Minneapolis Public Schools
In addition to USDA’s efforts, there have been a few attempts in Congress to extend or make permanent healthy school meals for all at a federal level.
In 2021, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act (H.R.3115, S.1530), which would have made free school meals permanent across the country. The bill has not yet passed.
Over the course of 2022, Congress had several opportunities to extend the USDA’s authority to issue emergency waivers, which would have allowed the agency to continue offering free school meals to all students for school year 2022-2023. Two of the highest profile waiver extension bills were the bipartisan Senate Support Kids Not Red Tape Act (S.3979), backed by 51 Senators, which would have provided free school meals to all students for another year (through June 30, 2023), and the bipartisan House Keeping School Meals Flexible Act (H.R.6613), which would have similarly extended the waivers. Unfortunately, Congress did not pass either of these measures.
Congress did, however, pass the Keep Kids Fed Act (P.L.117-158) in 2022, which (among other things) allowed schools and summertime meal providers to continue serving breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge for summer 2022. A school year 2022-2023 extension of the waivers was blocked in the Senate.
Congress also passed the Inflation Reduction Act (P.L.117-169). Previous versions of the bill (including the Build Back Better Act and President Biden’s American Families Plan) would have ultimately made more students eligible for free healthy school meals which, while short of healthy free school meals for all, would have been a leap in the right direction. Unfortunately, all school meal provisions were stripped out of the final version of the Inflation Reduction Act.
As of September 2022, there is no legislation moving at the federal level that would establish healthy school meals for all, but Congress still has an opportunity to expand the number students eligible for free school meals through Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR).
Congress is supposed to pass CNR every five years, but 2010 was the last time the school meals program was reauthorized. Congress is currently considering CNR. The House bill, called the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act (H.R.8450), would expand access to free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which was established by the 2010 CNR (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act). Although these provisions fall short of guaranteeing free school meals for all children, passing CNR would still mark an important step federally in increasing access to school meals.
Congress is must pass a Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) bill that reauthorizes and makes improvements to child nutrition programs such as the school breakfast and lunch programs.
Assistant Professor of Social Work
While it remains to be seen whether the federal government will pass CNR, incredible progress has been made at the state level in recent years.
In 2021, California and Maine became the first states in the country to pass legislation to provide school meals to all students free of charge for this school year (SY 2022-23) and beyond. Other states like Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts have passed one-year extensions to continue offering free school meals to students for at least the 2022-2023 school year. Meanwhile, several other states across the U.S. are considering similar legislation.
If you are interested in learning more about these state campaigns, please contact us at email@example.com. We have also developed a toolkit for advocates with helpful resources for running a campaign at the local, state, and even federal level.