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To Help Recover from COVID-19, We Need Universal Free School Meals

By Jamie Bussel

Note: This piece was originally posted on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Blog.

Boy selecting item in lunch line

For tens of millions of children in the United States, school isn’t just a place to learn, but a place where they can depend on receiving healthy meals. In March 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 31 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and more than 17 million participated in the School Breakfast Program (SBP); the vast majority of children receiving these school meals are from families with low incomes.  

So when COVID-19 swept across the nation this spring and forced at least 124,000 schools in the United States serving 55 million students to close, a public health crisis quickly became an education crisis and a nutrition crisis. 

School districts responded quickly, creatively, and heroically,  implementing “Grab and Go” models allowing parents to pick up meals in school parking lots or other community hubs; loading up school buses with meals and dropping them off at stops along neighborhood routes; and delivering meals directly to students’ homes. USDA did its part by issuing a series of waivers granting more flexibility in how meals could be prepared, packaged, and served. Particularly for students living in poverty and areas where healthy foods are typically scarce, the heroism of school officials and volunteers was a lifeline. 

Today, there are more questions than answers about the 2020-21 school year, which may be unlike we’ve ever experienced. But the last thing school officials should be worrying about upon reopening is how to process meal applications and figuring out who qualifies for free or reduced-price categories; their mission of educating and feeding students as safely as possible should be their primary concern. 

USDA recently announced that some of the meal flexibility waivers issued this spring would continue into 2021, which will help. But we need to act bigger and bolder. To that end, USDA should take the natural next step of allowing schools to serve free meals to every student during the coming school year (i.e universal free school meals) and Congress should appropriate any necessary additional funding to cover the full cost of all meals served. 

Universal free school meals will help accomplish three key goals. 

Photo of Jamie Bussel from RWJF

“USDA should take the natural next step of allowing schools to serve free meals to every student during the coming school year (i.e universal free school meals) and Congress should appropriate any necessary additional funding to cover the full cost of all meals served.”

Jamie Bussel

More families–particularly families with low incomes–will have enough to eat. Since March, more than 40 million people in the United States have filed new unemployment claims. The national unemployment rate has jumped to 13.3 percent, with even higher rates among Black and Latinx Americans. With more families losing their livelihoods and extra federal unemployment insurance benefits set to expire at the end of July, putting food on the table will be tougher. We’re already seeing this happening. The Institute for Policy Research estimates that food insecurity rates doubled overall and tripled for families with children between March and April 2020 due to spikes in unemployment and greater difficulty accessing school meals.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has released a series of health equity principles to guide state and local reopening and recovery efforts to ensure that families that have been hardest hit by the pandemic and resulting downturn get the help they need to get back on their feet. One of the pillars of our framework is proactively identifying and addressing existing policy gaps–which includes the expansion of school meals programs to more children.  

More children will receive healthy meals that help them grow, learn, and thrive. Healthier school meal nutrition standards have worked exactly as intended since implementation began nearly a decade ago. USDA’s research shows that the nutrition content of school meals has increased significantly, and student participation in meal programs is highest in schools that serve the healthiest meals.

In fact, research published in Health Affairs just this week shows that the healthier school meals are associated with a significant decrease in the risk for obesity among children growing up in families with low incomes. The authors calculated that the obesity rate among these children in 2018 was 47 percent lower than it would have been without the healthier school meals standards, translating to roughly 500,000 fewer cases of obesity.

Healthier meals are good not only for students’ wellbeing, but can also help them succeed in the classroom. For instance, research shows that eating regular breakfast, including breakfast at school, has cognitive benefits, including a mainly positive effect on on-task behavior in the classroom and children’s academic performance.

Schools will be spared financial and administrative burdens. Figuring out how to reopen schools during a pandemic is an incredibly difficult challenge. When should students return? How many should be in the building at one time? Can students even sit in the cafeteria? There is no set playbook to follow. 

School districts are facing enormous logistical and operational challenges ahead of the 2020-21 school year, and meal service is no exception. Per a recent School Nutrition Association survey, more than 860 school districts nationwide reported combined estimated financial losses from food service programs of more than $626 million due to the impacts of COVID-19. With the number of children who would otherwise qualify for free and reduced-price meals expected to jump significantly, the federal government should step in to ensure that every child is properly fed during the school day at no expense to schools or families.   

For more than 70 years, students have relied on national school meals programs to keep them healthy and help them learn, but their importance to our health and wellbeing has never been greater. Universal free school meals won’t solve every challenge associated with this pandemic, but it is a key component of a safe and equitable recovery. 

Jamie Bussel is a senior program officer and childhood obesity lead at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J. Follow her on Twitter: @JBussel

PRIORITY Policy

School Meals and Snacks

Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide, more than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program.

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