Free School Meals Are A Moral Imperative. End Of Story.

Food & Drink

Something that continues to baffle me is that we have a solution that can help end child hunger in the United States. And we just aren’t using it.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, schools across the U.S. began providing free meals to all students, regardless of their income. This was thanks to a waiver issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2020 that authorized schools to provide meals at no charge. But when that waiver expired in June 2022, many American students returned to paying for school meals.

And now, according to Feeding America, 9 million kids in the U.S. face food insecurity.

This is unacceptable. Every child—every person!—must have access to healthy, delicious meals.

School meals work. Students who participate in school meal programs eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables during meals and have better overall diet quality, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The benefits go beyond the cafeteria—school breakfast programs are also associated with better attendance rates and better test scores.

And people want school meals to be accessible. Universal meals help reduce stigma associated with school food or eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, and according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), 63 percent of voters nationwide support legislation that would make free school meals permanently available to all students.

Just listen to food heroine Marion Nestle, who says, “Children are the future of our country. We need them to be healthy. That is why I will never understand how anyone could oppose universal school meals and the strongest nutrition standards possible.”

She’s right. During Covid, those USDA waivers showed that providing free school meals is not just possible, but easy and popular. That the only reason they didn’t exist before—and were then revoked a year ago—is because we’ve chosen not to prioritize our children. Those in power have decided that kids’ lunches aren’t worth the money. Our failure to feed our future is a choice that’s being made. That’s unconscionable.

We can choose differently. What we need right now, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, is moral ambition.

Luckily, some policymakers and eaters are making universal school meals a priority.

Massachusetts just became the eighth state in the country to make free, universal school meals permanent, joining seven other states—California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont—that have done the same. This means that students in all schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which in Massachusetts are all public schools and most charters, won’t go hungry at lunchtime.

Erin McAleer, the Executive Director of Project Bread, wrote: “The necessity, value and benefits of universal school meals were made clear by over 4,200 advocates reaching out, calling, emailing, tweeting, and showing up over 18,000 times in front of Massachusetts legislators.”

More progress is in the works, too. A federal bill moving through the U.S. Congress right now, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023, would enact free school lunches nationwide, so we’re keeping a close eye on that legislation. Plus, on FRAC’s website, you can track progress on free school meals in your state.

We need to take direct action to help feed our kids. Reach out to your senators, representatives, governors, even mayors and school board leaders, to let them know that universal school meals are a priority. If your state already passed universal school lunch legislation, call your elected officials to thank them, so they don’t forget the power of the food movement.

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