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The End of Universal Free School Lunch
A series of federal waivers that made school meals universally free are set to expire at the end of the month. The National School Lunch Program, however, provides a number of economic benefits.
At the end of the month, a series of federal waivers will expire that had allowed school breakfasts and lunches to be made universally free. The Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers allowed all students, regardless of financial status, to eat school meals for free. The waivers allocated money to schools to pay for meals, allowed schools to serve more grab-and-go meals, and relaxed nutritional standards to account for supply-chain disruptions. The waivers were also indirectly helpful to families struggling with rising food prices.
An extension of the waivers was originally included in the omnibus spending package earlier this year but was allegedly opposed by leading politicians who felt that the waivers weren’t needed more than two years into the pandemic. Even though school lunches have largely been available at no cost to students, the USDA reported a significant drop in the total number of school lunches served in the past two years, likely due to increases in remote learning and hybrid schedules.
School meal programs are not immune to many of the same challenges facing the restaurant industry as well. Cafeteria staples like chicken, pizza, and muffins are hard to come by. When administrators can order food, the deliveries often arrive late, or may not show up at all. Schools are also struggling to hire enough cooks and drivers. All this comes at a time as child hunger rates and food scarcity continue to increase.
While it seems unlikely that there will be any federal action over the next ten days, there has been some action at the state level. California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont have all either proposed, passed, or are about to vote on state-level universal free school meal programs. Before the pandemic, the USDA reported that 74.2% of meals were free or reduced-price. The additional coverage from universal coverage would increase access for millions of children. For many kids, school meals are the healthiest that many students eat.
Human capital investments are often associated with improvements in schooling, but the application is much broader. These investments encompass upfront costs that improve the quality of a worker’s productivity over their lifetime. In addition to learning, schools can also increase a child’s human capital by providing physical education and healthy meals.
In a study of about 9,700 elementary and middle schools, researchers found that healthier school lunches resulted in end-of-year test scores that were about 4 percentile points higher on average and even larger for students who qualify for free and/or reduced-price lunches. Moreover, they found that the change in test scores is being driven by differences in food quality and not food quantity. Other studies had already found that increasing access to the National School Lunch Program can lead to improved test scores.
There are also wealth and health benefits associated with greater access to school lunch programs. Students who received free meals throughout primary school saw an increase of 3% in earnings later in life. When children and provided nutritionally-rich food, it reduces their risk of developing chronic health conditions like diabetes. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Center for Good Food Purchasing found that school lunch programs provide nearly $40 billion in health and economic benefits while costing only $18.7 billion per year to run.
If you aren’t moved by the economic benefits, consider the mental health benefits. Since the current school lunch program is based on income requirements, there’s a significant stigma attached to receiving free and reduced-price meals. Despite their need, one in three eligible students skipped lunch to avoid the shame. Universal free school lunch removes that stigma.
11.2% of adults report living in a household where there was either “sometimes or often not enough” to eat in the last 7 days [US Census Bureau]
A universal free lunch program would save school administrators 68 minutes per student, or $29 per student per year, by not having to process and verify financial eligibility [USDA]
School food workers are overwhelmingly female. 92% of cafeteria workers are women [Rockerfeller Foundation]
Before the pandemic, 75% of surveyed districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of their school year [School Nutrition Association]
Schools were typically reimbursed $3.66 for every free lunch that was provided during the 2021-2022 school year [Federal Register]
Based on data from 2014-2015, the average cost of producing a school lunch is about $3.81 per meal [USDA]