June 13, 2023
For students in most states, the 2022–2023 school year marked the return to pre-pandemic school nutrition operations, including a return to assigning students to free, reduced-price, and paid meal categories based on their household income.
Over the course of the school year, the stigma associated with eating school meals returned to cafeterias, and unpaid school meal debt soared. In fact, a report from the School Nutrition Association noted that per district debt during the school year varied from as low as $15 to as high as $1.7 million.
In addition to stigma and meal debt, a return to eligibility categories meant that many students in need of free school meals went without them. There are many struggling families that do not meet the eligibility threshold for free meals, which is incredibly low. It requires, for example, a family of three to earn less than $30,000 annually.
For more than two school years during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, our country had the opportunity to pilot a nationwide free school meals policy through waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The impact of those free meals was a game changer for students, families, and schools. Five states, including California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico have since passed state legislation to make free school meals a permanent part of the school day.
As we take the summer to reflect and prepare for the next school year, it is critical that Congress start moving federal legislation to support school meals. The following bills would expand free meals to more students.
- The Universal School Meal Program Act of 2023 (S.1568/H.R.3204) would create a permanent nationwide Healthy School Meals for All program, increase reimbursement rates for school meals, end lunch shaming, reimburse schools for meal debt, provide incentives for local food procurement, expand summer meal access, and expand the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
- The School Meals Expansion Act (H.R.2567) would increase the multiplier for federal reimbursement under community eligibility from 1.6 to 2.5, making community eligibility more financially viable for eligible schools and districts. Without additional federal funding, the currently eligible schools that have been unable to adopt community eligibility and most newly eligible schools will be unable to implement community eligibility with the current, lower multiplier.
- The No Hungry Kids in School Act (H.R.3112) would create a statewide community eligibility option.
- The Expanding Access to School Meals Act (H.R.3113) would increase eligibility for free meals to 200 percent and expand direct certification, resulting in increased federal funding for community eligibility schools and better access to school meals for struggling families.
All children need to be hunger-free to have the energy and focus they need to get the most out of their school day. Please reach out to your Members of Congress and ask them to cosponsor these important bills. We cannot go another school year without free school meals for all students.