Pear in mind: A blog in the public interest

In mid-May, I visited The John Commodore Rodgers (JCR) Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore, MD, to learn firsthand about its successful school meal programs. JCR offers universal school meals, meaning all kids can receive a free, nutritious breakfast and lunch, no matter their household's income. Baltimore City Public Schools implemented free—or universal—school meals for all in 2015, well before the pandemic.

Since then, the program has been a huge success. Without the barrier of parental applications to determine eligibility for school meals, the district saw 10,000 more students eating school lunches. The school district has been able to meet higher nutrition standards—increasing whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, while decreasing fat, sodium, and sugar—without increasing food waste. School administrators said that more students are eating healthy, free meals at school, and they’re loving it.  

That much was evident during my visit, where I had the opportunity to talk to kids about why they love their breakfast and lunch program. A few reasons: trying new fruits and veggies; being able to focus better on learning instead of being hungry; starting their day with the cafeteria staff.  

On May 28, President Biden released to Congress his proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, outlining the administration’s priorities for the coming year. The budget incorporated the administration’s recently released $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, as well as $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending. 

Importantly, the FY22 budget included critical investments in school food and nutrition programs. It proposes increasing training and technical assistance for school meal programs and increasing kitchen equipment grants so schools can upgrade their cafeterias. It also calls for removing a rider that allows sugary milk in schools.  

However, there were many areas where the President’s budget did not go far enough. Notably, the budget calls for expanding access to school meals but does not include permanent free meals for all. It also doesn't increase reimbursements for improved nutrition standards at schools, many of whom have had to cut budgets during the pandemic. 

A few weeks ago, CSPI asked Congress’s appropriations leaders to make these additional investments in school meals and other food and nutrition programs (among other recommendations). After over a year of devastation by the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has a critical opportunity to make concrete and measurable improvements to our health, beginning with our schools. I envision a future where all schools can mirror the success of John Commodore Rodgers—and all kids have access to a healthy, free meal to support their learning and development.  

Tell Congress to ensure school meals remain free for all students here