When the Covid-19 pandemic forced nationwide school closures—and hunger and food insecurity spiked—Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act in 2020. Provisions in those laws provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with authority and funding to implement waivers that helped make it easier for schools to continue to serve meals to all students and their families.
Under these waivers, schools have been permitted to serve meals to all students at no charge (also known as universal school meals), to distribute meals to families outside of the school setting and to temporarily serve meals that meet the less-stringent nutrition standards of the Summer Food Service Program. In 2021, USDA extended universal school meals and these additional flexibilities through the current school year. The waiver authority, including universal school meals, will expire on June 30, 2022.
Based on the overwhelming evidence of the benefits to children summarized in this brief, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports all federal and state efforts to extend universal school meals through at least the 2022-2023 school year, if not permanently, with commensurate federal funding to ensure schools are able to serve meals that align with the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The Foundation also encourages federal and state efforts to strengthen school meal nutrition standards, and provide schools with the resources needed to meet those standards, to ensure children receive healthy food each day.