Without Universal Free School Meals, our nation's children are going hungry
What sort of a world are we living in where this is considered okay?
Hello my friends,
It’s been a few months since we had the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, where I spoke about creating a National Food Agency. My vision is for a cabinet-level agency with a mission to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply, while also making sure that all Americans have access to fresh, healthy, and nourishing foods.
After the Conference, I felt hopeful that our leaders would begin to prioritize equitable food access. But the recent news about the expiration of free school lunch waivers tells me we are heading in the wrong direction.
If you remember, during the COVID crisis, Congress gave waivers to schools, allowing them to serve free meals to all students, regardless of income. The waivers were extended for two years, which meant nearly all children in America could get free school breakfast and lunch, no matter their family income.
Everyone knows this was a big, big help to struggling students – improving not just nutrition but education too. It was the right thing to do then, and it’s the right thing to do now.
But then in June, at the request of Senator Rand Paul and Republican colleagues, who believed they were no longer necessary, the waivers were not extended.
My friends, I openly disagree with Senator Paul and his colleagues and say very clearly: these waivers are very necessary. The emergency created by the pandemic proved that we could stave off child hunger and deprivation if the government acted.
The Census Bureau found that food insecurity in struggling households with children facing actually fell by about 7 percentage points between the start of the pandemic and summer 2021 – thanks to government programs like universal free school meals.
But now the waivers have expired for nearly 30 million students. Many of our country’s children, who live in one of the wealthiest nations on earth, risk going hungry.
Can you imagine what it’s like to be a parent who lives just above the poverty line, who doesn’t qualify for free meals? The vast majority of them are working not just one but two jobs. What do you do? You send your child to school with whatever you can find, maybe a bag of chips. Then you find out that your child can’t concentrate in school because she is so hungry.
Think about those children whose parents fill out the bureaucratic paperwork and have to hand these “free lunch” forms in front of a teacher or classmates? How does that feel?
Or, just as bad, imagine being in a lunch line, hungry for food, and being refused a tray because your family has not been able to pay your lunch debt?
Right now, there are so many families with young kids who, because of the waivers, have never had to fill out the paperwork that was previously required. Many parents do not know how to do it, or even that it exists! Others refuse to participate because of the stigma.
The sad result: Children are being denied school lunch, and we have more hungry children. What sort of world are we living in where this is considered okay?
Here on Longer Tables we cover many food policy issues that mean a lot to me, and I think to you too. I hope you will come with me on this journey to change our national food policy and join me as a subscriber.
It’s crazy to me that we have to fight for this program…that the value of preventing children from starving is not clear in and of itself.
But if you need it, we have a lot of research and data to show that providing school meals for all children is one of the best investments we can make. School meals have been shown to improve students’ school attendance rates, their behavior and their academic achievement.
Think about it…how can you learn when your stomach is empty and you have a headache from lack of food? Kids (and adults) just can’t concentrate when they are hungry. I know I can’t.
Since Congress will not act, some states are doing the right thing. New York, California, and Maine have made universal free school meals permanent, and in November voters passed a ballot measure doing the same in Colorado. Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont extended them for a year.
This is a good sign, but it’s not enough.
You’ve heard me say this so many times, my friends: Food is not the problem. Food is the solution. Food is a universal human right. It requires equitable access for all Americans at times of peace, prosperity, hardship, and crisis.
In February of 2022, The Bipartisan Policy Center issued a report, with the support of World Central Kitchen, entitled Strengthening Child Nutrition Programs, which listed as one of its primary goals “ensuring all children, regardless of household income, have access to nutritious foods to allow them to learn and grow by providing school breakfast, school lunch, afterschool meals, and summer meals to all students at no cost.”
What has happened to this goal? Have we forgotten our children? How? A plate of food is a plate of hope, and Congress is leaving our children without either.
Want to know more about the tortured history of school lunch? Listen to Pressure Cooker, a podcast from my media company. They did an amazing two-part series on how we got this crazy system and what we can do to change it. Listen to Episode 1 and Episode 2.
California now provides universal free lunches. But what can an individual Californian like me do to support free lunches at the national level?
This is so incredibly sad. Senator Rand Paul calls himself a doctor. Ha! For many Republicans, cruelty is the point. I read a story a few years back about a woman who tried to pay the lunch bill for a student and the school refused to take the money; then the community rallied and tried to pay the overdue lunch bills for the entire school, and still the school’s first response was NO. Thank you Jose for continuing to keep the spotlight on this issue. We can see which states actually care about their citizens and child poverty and hunger by which states have moved to provide this basic right.