Children need access to nutritious meals so they can learn, thrive, and grow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality for millions of families across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated hunger and food insecurity while shining a spotlight on the inequalities in our food system – however, it also exemplified the power school meal programs have in the fight to end childhood hunger and malnutrition. Before the pandemic, 52% of kids already qualified for free or reduced-price school meals, and that number has likely grown significantly over the past year and a half. With the help of USDA pandemic relief waivers, schools expanded their programs to provide free meals to all students through the 2020-21 school year and the upcoming 2021-22 school year.
By providing all children with free meals – no questions asked – schools can tackle child hunger, combat community food insecurity, and safeguard kids’ health. Universal meal programs remove the social stigma many children face when singled out for receiving free and reduced-price meals while supporting essential school foodservice workers and even boosting local agriculture economies. And now, we see efforts to make these programs permanent.
Earlier this month, California and Maine became the first states to pass official budget allocations for public school nutrition programs to facilitate free school meals for all K-12 public school students. In California, language barriers and immigration status may have prevented eligible children from enrolling in free meal programs. The new program will ensure that all children – especially those from BIPOC communities – have access to meals at no cost to their families. In other states, like Vermont, nonprofits dedicated to ending hunger are running universal free meal pilot programs in select schools. The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 has been introduced in Congress – if passed, the legislation would allow schools in every state to provide three free meals a day to all students, regardless of their family’s income.
Schools have the potential to become the critical drivers in ending childhood hunger and malnutrition. The momentum universal free meal programs are gaining is something to celebrate, especially considering that 78% of the school foodservice leaders we surveyed expressed the need for more support from parents, the greater community, and state and federal governments. We need to continue to invest in these programs, support foodservice teams, and facilitate the sourcing of healthful and environmentally friendly ingredients.
Eat REAL helps schools create action plans that work within the limitations they face to source more sustainable and nutritious ingredients while raising awareness around the vital role that school food programs play in ensuring the health and wellbeing of our children and the planet. Our standards and program make creating the most nourishing food possible for students attainable. Universal free school meal programs promote health equity and nutrition access, and Eat REAL now has the opportunity to reach more children than ever before.