On June 30, a U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver that drastically alters the way school meals are provided across the country is set to expire. A carryover from flexibilities first allowed when the COVID-19 pandemic ensued in March 2020, this waiver currently allows schools to serve school breakfast and lunch to all students free of charge and receive higher reimbursement rates for those meals using the flexibilities provided by the Seamless Summer Option (SSO). Facing financial hardships, supply chain disruptions, and staffing shortages, roughly 90% of school districts nationwide are using these flexibilities and providing free meals to all students regardless of their income in the 2021-22 school year.
But without action from Congress to authorize the USDA to continue extending waivers, these flexibilities will expire at the end of June, marking the end of a more than two-year period where school meals were provided at no cost to students across the country. This is occurring against the backdrop of two pandemic realities: at the same time that childhood hunger has been exacerbated, participation in school meals dramatically declined in 2020-2021 from pre-pandemic levels.
“We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but what school meal programs face is nowhere close to normal. We desperately need these waivers to manage unyielding supply chain disruptions and labor shortages, cover rapidly escalating costs and remain viable to support our communities,” said Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association, in a press release.
In February, nearly 2,000 national, state, and local organizations from every state signed a letter urging Congress to extend the USDA’s authority to issue nationwide waivers beyond this school year. The letter states that continued flexibilities are needed to respond to the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and its aftermath.
“As we look to rebuild, school meals are such an important part of making sure kids have the fuel they need to focus and learn and concentrate,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-time school programs for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “And the easiest and best thing to do is just to make sure that every kid has access to that meal that they need to make it through the school day.”
Despite advocacy efforts, Congress took no action on this issue when it passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill in early March. While the future of the waiver extension remains unknown, there are other pathways that would expand access to school meals for all — also called universal school meals — including federal legislation and state-level efforts.
Community Eligibility Provision
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were efforts to expand the provision of school meals for all. In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act created the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows high-poverty schools and districts to offer breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. In the 2020-21 school year, more than 15 million students at roughly 33,000 schools and 5,000 school districts were offered free school meals through CEP.
CEP has been shown to increase participation in school meals. Schools in the initial pilot of CEP had a 9.4% increase in breakfast participation and a 5.2% increase in lunch participation on average. CEP also reduces the administrative burdens of running school meal programs and eliminates unpaid school meal debt. Additionally, research has found that CEP is associated with a range of positive outcomes, including lower rates of food insecurity and suspensions.
Why school meals for all?
As the country continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, school nutrition programs offer a pathway to reducing childhood hunger, improving students’ health, and supporting academic achievement. Commonly cited benefits of school meals for all include:
- Increases participation in school meals, which has been linked to a variety of health and educational benefits, including improved academic achievement and attendance
- Eliminates school meal debt. A 2019 report found that 75% of school districts had unpaid meal debt that was growing substantially
- Reduces the stigma associated with participating in school meals
- Reduces the administrative burden on school cafeterias
Federal legislation stalls
Child nutrition reauthorization
Child nutrition reauthorization (CNR) is Congress’ process of altering the statutes that authorize child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. Although CNR is supposed to occur every five years, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was the most recent child nutrition reauthorization. That legislation expanded access to schools meals for all through the creation of the Community Eligibility Provision and created stricter nutrition standards. The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act expired in September 2015, but most child nutrition programs continue to operate because they are permanently authorized, while other programs are funded through the appropriations process each year.
A variety of bills that would expand access to school meals have already been introduced and could eventually be incorporated as part of child nutrition reauthorization, should Congress decide to act on it in 2022. One of those bills is the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021. Introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and a group of Democratic legislators in both the Senate and the House, the bill would permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all students regardless of income. However, the bill is currently stalled in Congressional committees.
According to FitzSimons, the two committees with jurisdiction over CNR — the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the House Committee on Education and Labor — have expressed interest in taking on CNR this year, but if they will do so remains unclear. For more on CNR, read this primer.
Build Back Better
Although it stops short of providing school meals for all, President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill includes two key child nutrition proposals: expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) and nationwide Summer EBT.
Summer EBT is a program that provides summer food benefits through EBT cards to low-income families with children who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals during the school year. The program began in 2011 as a demonstration project and has grown since then, serving 300,000 children across eight states in 2018. Build Back Better would invest $25 billion to make Summer EBT available nationwide to all children receiving free- and reduced-price meals.
The legislation would also make it easier for schools serving large numbers of low-income children to provide universal school meals under CEP. Currently, to qualify for CEP, a school must have 40% or more of its students automatically enrolled for free school meals through direct certification, usually because their families participate in SNAP and/or Medicaid. Build Back Better would increase reimbursements under CEP to encourage more eligible schools to participate in it, and it would lower the threshold for eligibility to 25% of students directly certified.
It would also create an option for states to offer CEP statewide rather than only at the school or district level, which FitzSimons said would allow the highest poverty states to provide universal free school meals without having to come up with additional state funding.
Although the House passed the Build Back Better Act last fall, it remains stalled in the Senate.
States leading the way
“States are not waiting for Congress,” said FitzSimons.
As many policies remain stalled at the federal level, there is renewed energy and momentum for expanding schools meals for all at the state level. Two states, California and Maine, have passed legislation providing for school meals. Other states have ongoing campaigns advocating for school meals for all, including Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont.
According to FitzSimons, the successful passage of legislation in California and Maine was the culmination of prior steps that expanded access to school meals and reflects a trend of states considering how to build the strongest school nutrition programs possible.
“The more you learn about school meals, the more you think about how all kids are in the school cafeteria, the more you understand the stigma associated with participating in free school meals and how kids start to opt-out of school meals as they get older,” said FitzSimons of state-level efforts. “It all leads you to a place where — why are we wasting our time determining which child really does deserve a free school meal and which child doesn’t?”
Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, California will implement universal school meals, offering a free breakfast and lunch to all students. Funding allocated by the state legislature covers the additional cost of the program, supplementing existing federal meal reimbursements.
“We provide our students free textbooks, access to computers, and other learning tools, so it only makes sense that we would provide free school meals as well,” said California state senator Nancy Skinner in a video statement.
Similarly, Maine will begin providing school meals for all in the 2022-23 school year, and the state will also cover the difference between the federal reimbursement for school meals and the total cost of the expansion.
“I believe this is the most significant piece of legislation that we’ve dealt with here in Maine ever,” said Maine Senate President Troy Jackson in a video statement. “I believe this is going to be a game changer for addressing the alarming rate of food insecurity among children in Maine, which has only worsened during the pandemic.”
While the future of nationwide school meals for all remains uncertain, the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic have undoubtedly accelerated policy discussions and legislative actions toward school meals for all.
“It’s not clear how this will play out,” said FitzSimons. “But it’s very exciting to see so many policymakers kind of embrace healthy school meals for all and understand how important nutrition is for kids for their health and also for their opportunities to learn at school.”