Why doesn’t the US offer universal free school lunch? 

American school lunches, though reformed, still leave something to be desired.
American school lunches, though reformed, still leave something to be desired.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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When much of the US shut down in mid-March due to Covid-19, New York City public schools kept performing one of their most critical functions. Not teaching: feeding kids.

Between mid-March and early June, the city’s schools had served 40 million free meals, at one point up to about 1.5 million per day, according to the Wall Street Journal. Schools in the nation’s largest district were likely better equipped than others to start handing out meals during the pandemic, since it had made lunch free to all students in 2017.

As other schools scrambled to feed kids when classes weren’t in session—a temporary change in federal regulations allowed schools to hand out meals to all children who needed them during the pandemic—it’s made some people wonder why we don’t do this all the time. That is, why doesn’t the US offer universal free school lunch?

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There’s little question that such a program would benefit students. Kids who have access to lunch at school perform better academically and have better long-term health outcomes (pdf). Many countries, including Finland, India, Brazil, Japan, have seen their children become healthier and more responsible as a result.

Children whose families can’t afford to pack a lunch or to pay the standard price for one from the cafeteria have the option of free and reduced-price lunch—29.4 million kids got fed this way at 100,000 schools in 2019, costing the federal government $14.1 billion. But because of stigma, many eligible students choose not to eat the school’s lunch. In 2012, just 72% of eligible students in California participated in free or reduced lunch programs. “Kids are clearly deterred from participating by the stigma. It infects the food,” says Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College.

Even when families can pay some or all of the subsidized price of a school lunch, neglecting to do so (either because they forgot to pay or because they can’t) means schools pressure kids to pay their debt, sometimes by stamping them or by serving them a sub-par or cold meal. “Why do we do that to a child? We don’t do that to get them on a school bus or to give them a textbook,” says Katie Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Urban School Food Alliance.

Many universal free lunch proponents say that the amount of time and money schools spend on determining whether kids are eligible for free or reduced lunch would be better allocated towards free lunch for all. “If we just did it, we would probably be saving money from the amount of paperwork it takes to qualify these kids,” Wilson says.

Legislation over the past decade has made it somewhat easier for US schools to provide free school lunch to all kids. The Community Eligibility Provision, part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, means that districts where 40% of students qualify for free meals are eligible for government reimbursements that make it possible to feed all kids at no cost to families. It was this change that allowed New York City to start offering universal free school lunch in 2017.

But to take advantage of the program, districts have to opt in, and some simply don’t consider it a priority. “We thought it would not be a big challenge [to bring universal free lunch to New York City], but it ended up being quite a fight,” says Liz Accles, the executive director of the nonprofit Community Food Advocates. Her organization created a coalition of principals, teachers, parent groups, and public health advocates to get city officials to take it seriously. That’s the kind of thing that would have to happen at the national level to change the laws and bring free lunch to all American kids.

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The pandemic seems to have shown people just how important school lunch really is. The US Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, extended the provision that allows schools to be reimbursed for feeding 100% of kids through the end of the 2021 school year. In July US House representative Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced a bill that would result in universal free school lunch; the bill has not yet been voted on.

“It was very striking to me that one of the major factors for whether schools closed down during the pandemic was access to meals for children. That is the statement,” Accles says (it’s also a major reason most schools didn’t close during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic). “It’s a testament to how important this program is, that it should be invested in more adequately on the federal level.”

“We find money for whatever we want to find money for. It’s whether we make it the priority,” Wilson says.