This week, we celebrate the 60th annual National School Lunch Week. The National School Lunch Program feeds tens of millions of school children annually and is arguably the most recognizable federal feeding program.  

If you graduated high school more than ten years ago, school lunches today likely look much different than the ones you remember. Federal legislation in 2010, called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, made sweeping changes to school meals, updating the nutrition standards to require limits on calories, saturated fat and sodium, requiring more whole grains and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Recent research shows that school meals are the healthiest source of foods for children compared to other major food sources – including grocery and restaurant foods.  

Recognizing school meals’ role in combatting food insecurity, particularly at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress authorized free school meals for all students, regardless of household income, for two school years (2020-21 and 2021-22). During this time, parents no longer had to fill out burdensome application forms, students could eat a school meal without worrying that it signaled to their peers that their families were struggling financially, and school meals programs were guaranteed federal funding at the maximum reimbursement rate, allowing them to focus on feeding kids. There were likely widespread benefits - research shows that free meals for all are positively associated with diet quality, food security, and academic performance. 

This school year, nationwide access to free school meals has ended, despite a rallying cry from advocates. Just two weeks ago, the Biden-Harris Administration committed to advancing a pathway to free healthy school meals for all in its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, but Congressional action is required for this to become a reality. A Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that would expand access to free meals has been stalled in the House since July, while the Senate has yet to produce a bill. California and Maine made history in 2021 by becoming the first two states to pass permanent free meals for all statewide, while Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts have passed a one-year extension. Still, advocates and legislators in several other states are working to make this a reality in their states. This election season, the Yes on FF campaign is a first-of-its-kind ballot initiative in Colorado. If passed, it would ensure that all students receive free meals, while providing other critical funding support to school meals programs. The program would be funded by limiting state income tax deductions for top earners in Colorado. 

New horizons are ahead for school meals: the U.S. Department of Agriculture has committed to revising the nutrition standards early next year to be consistent with the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a critical step given that current requirements do not align with the Guidelines with respect to sodium, whole grains, and added sugars. Further, a $100 million healthy school meals initiative will provide recognition and awards to school meals programs.  

This National School Lunch Week, we celebrate the heroic efforts of school nutrition providers, applaud the Biden-Harris Administration and USDA’s commitments to improving school nutrition, and urge lawmakers to further invest in ensuring that healthy, culturally relevant, and appealing school meals are available to every student, so that they have the fuel they need to succeed.