Free School Meals Helped Families During The Pandemic. This Fall, Those Lunches Won’t Return.

Nadra Nittle

Originally published by The 19th

The healthiest meal students typically receive during the day isn’t at their dining room table — it’s in their school cafeteria.

That finding from Tufts University researchers is just one reason child nutrition experts have urged Congress to pass legislation that would enable schools nationwide to provide free meals for all students. Pandemic-era waivers that made universal free school lunch a reality the past two years have expired, and this fall, students will once again have to qualify for free, reduced or full-priced meals based on need.

That prospect is raising concerns among child nutrition experts who predict that once the school year begins more kids will go hungry amid an uptick in food insecurity in households with children.

“There are going to be many struggling families next fall who don’t apply for meal programs or who don’t qualify for benefits,” said Lori Adkins, president of the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit representing 50,000 school nutrition professionals nationwide. “The ones that do qualify for benefits, our programs will continue to provide that safety net, but for those that are on the cusp, I’m worried about them. Sometimes it is that single-parent household with children, and they have limited resources, and sometimes they can fall through that safety net.”

Starting in 2020, Congress gave schools waivers that allowed them to provide free meals to every student, regardless of income. But Republicans opposed extending these provisions, arguing they’re no longer needed now that pandemic-related school closures have ended.

Single-parent households are particularly prone to food insecurity, or lacking consistent access to the nutrition needed to maintain one’s health. Nearly 29 percent of households headed by single mothers were food insecure in 2019 compared to 15.4 percent of households headed by single fathers, according to the Food Research and Action Center, which advocates for people experiencing poverty-related hunger.

Universal meal waivers can help. A report from the Food Research and Action Center analyzed how these provisions benefited 62 large school districts across the country. Ninety-five percent of the districts said meal waivers decreased hunger among their students, 89 percent said the waivers made it easier for parents and guardians, and 85 percent said they erased the stigma associated with free school meals.

“Hungry children shouldn’t have to worry about meal applications or whether they have money in their account so they can eat,” said Adkins, who is also a child nutrition consultant for Oakland Schools in Michigan. “It shouldn’t be a privilege; it should be available as part of the school day for all students along with textbooks and the ride to school on the bus and everything else.”

The federally funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) operates in almost 100,000 public and private schools and other institutions, helping them serve well-balanced and cost-efficient breakfasts and lunches. School meal prices vary across the country but have cost up to about $3 for lunch and $2 for breakfast in recent years, though pandemic-related inflation has caused food costs to spike. Participating schools are reimbursed for providing meals to students by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the program. In fiscal year 2020, the NSLP served meals to about 22.6 million children each school day, and more than three-quarters of these lunches were offered for no or reduced cost. The meals have been linked to higher academic achievement, improved behavior and better health for students. They have also been found to reduce food insecurity, with youth from households lacking consistent access to nutritious foods meeting most of their dietary needs at school.

“School breakfast and school lunch are meeting the nutritional needs of millions of kids across the country who rely on them,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school programs for the Food Research and Action Center.

 

Read the full story at The 19th.

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