WASHINGTON, August 26, 2019 — It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach, and studies show that school meals not only help reduce food insecurity, they support the healthy development of children, which positively impacts their ability to learn. Just in time for the new school year, the Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC) latest issue of ResearchWire highlights the latest research on the many benefits of school meals.

Here are four important issues for policymakers, educators, parents, and advocates to consider as students begin the new school year.

Proposed SNAP Rule Could Jeopardize Free School Meals for More Than 500,000 Children

The proposed rule would gut the broad based categorical eligibility option, which allows more families that get services funded by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to qualify for SNAP benefits if their net incomes are at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty line.  If adopted, the rule would eliminate SNAP benefits for 3.1 million people, and jeopardize more than 500,000 children’s access to free school breakfast and lunch.

Students who live in households that participate in SNAP are directly certified for free school meals and are not required to submit a school meal application. The number of children who are directly certified for free school meals under SNAP (combined with other students who are automatically eligible for free school meals, such as homeless students) determines if a school is eligible to implement community eligibility and the amount of federal funding the school would receive. Reducing the number of students directly certify through SNAP would cause some schools to no longer be eligible for community eligibility, and other schools would find that community eligibility is no longer a financially viable option since their federal funding would drop.

Unpaid Meal Fees Lead to Shaming

When students arrive in the cafeteria without cash in hand or in their school meal account, schools must determine how to respond. School meal debt is a problem for districts across the country. “Lunch shaming” is the practice of denying students a lunch in the cafeteria or otherwise subjecting them to embarrassment because of a lack of funds. Such practices have included throwing a child’s meal away, giving him or her a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hot lunch, and threatening to put children with outstanding school meal debt in foster care. While it doesn’t occur in most schools, lunch shaming has a very real effect on children — whether causing them to go hungry, hurting their self-esteem, or both.

Since students at schools using community eligibility receive meals at no charge, community eligibility is a solution to the problem of school meal debt for high-poverty schools, and it effectively ends shaming and stigma.

FRAC has weighed in on best practices for school districts to end shaming, and ways to prevent school meal debt on PBS NewsHour, NPR’s 1A, ABC News, and more.

Community Eligibility Removes Shaming and Stigma

This school year, tens of thousands of schools across the country are offering free breakfast and lunch through the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high-poverty schools to offer meals at no charge to all students. According to the Food Research & Action Center’s (FRAC) most recent report on community eligibility, in the 2018–2019 school year, 28,542 schools participated in the program.

In addition to boosting school breakfast and lunch participation, community eligibility reduces the stigma that school meals are only for low-income children. It also eases the paperwork burden for schools and families by eliminating school meal applications.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization Must Strengthen Programs

When Congress returns from recess on September 9, one of the bills they are likely to take up is Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). FRAC’s CNR priorities would help reduce childhood hunger, decrease childhood obesity (September is National Childhood Obesity Month), improve child nutrition and wellness, enhance child development and school readiness, support academic achievement, and reduce school meal debt.

Contact Emily Pickren to arrange an interview with one of FRAC’s experts:

James D. Weill, president
Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs


The Food Research & Action Center is the leading national nonprofit organization working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States.