America’s School Lunch Crisis

March 2, 2023

This piece originally appeared in Vox on March 2, 2023.

In 2020, when schools across the country closed to slow the spread of Covid-19, federal lawmakers did something unprecedented: They decided to pay for free lunch for every public school student in America, every day, no questions asked. Millions of children rely on free or reduced price meals at school, and policymakers knew that need would only grow as families faced a devastating pandemic.

The effect of the free meals was dramatic. Parents, many of them facing layoffs, illness, and grief, no longer had to worry about the cost of lunch for their kids — which, at about $2.50 a meal, was a $50 monthly expense per child that stretched many families even in normal times. Instead, they could pick up a free, nutritious meal at their children’s school, or in some cases even have it delivered by school bus. As a result, food insecurity in at-risk households with children declined by about 7 percentage points between the beginning of the pandemic and summer 2021.

Schools, meanwhile, were able to skip the time-consuming paperwork necessary prior to the pandemic to determine which students were eligible for federally subsidized meals. And kids no longer faced lunch “debt” — a running tally kept by schools when students ate but didn’t pay — that too often resulted in humiliation and anxiety for hungry children. Such debts were widespread before the pandemic because the threshold for free lunch was set at a household income of $33,475 for a family of four, leaving out many families who couldn’t afford the meals but made too much to qualify for subsidies. Students in lunch debt could be subjected to humiliating treatment, anything from a stamp on the hand branding them as indebted to having their lunch thrown away by cafeteria workers, according to the Washington Post.

The shift to universal free lunch “worked beautifully,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food workers. “There were just tremendous benefits.”

Then it ended.

The federal waiver program, which cost about $11 billion per school year, expired last fall, forcing school districts to start charging for lunch again just as inflation was decimating family food budgets.

As some families struggled to add another daily expense, districts were faced with a choice: Let kids go hungry, or go into debt themselves, potentially sacrificing other necessities from computers to teacher pay. In a November 2022 survey by the School Nutrition Association, 96.3 percent of districts reported that the end of federal waivers have led to an increase in unpaid debt. At East Hampton Public Schools in central Connecticut, for example, debt is going up by $500 every week. At one district, the Washington Post reported, debt for the school year has already reached $1.7 million.

“We had a sixth-grader crying in line, because she had heard her parents talking the night before about how they didn’t have money for lunch,” said Jennifer Bove, director of food and nutrition services for the East Hampton district. Another student asked his teacher if he could borrow money for lunch. “I almost quit my job that first day,” Bove said. “It was so awful.”

Children and families are generally on their own in America when it comes to policies that would help them lead healthy, thriving lives. But the beginning of the pandemic was a time of unusually broad support for child-friendly programs, including the expanded child tax credit, which kept nearly 4 million children out of poverty and helped countless families afford necessities like utilities and food. After that program expired at the end of 2021, child poverty increased 41 percent. Families are now facing the same kind of whiplash with the expiration of federal waivers for school lunch, as a program many had come to depend on is suddenly ripped out from under them.

But there’s a simple fix, education and nutrition experts agree: make universal free school lunch permanent. Making sure kids are fed is like making sure they have textbooks to learn from, Pratt-Heavner said: “It just makes sense.” But so far, there’s no momentum in Congress to bring the free meals back, leaving families and schools scrambling, and kids, in some places, struggling to learn.

“If a child is hungry,” Bove said, “that is all they think about all day.”

School lunch in America dates back to the late 19th century, when the passage of compulsory education laws and child-labor bans led to more kids in school for more hours per day than ever before, according to A.R. Ruis, a research scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research and the author of Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States. Health screenings in schools gave rise to concerns about malnutrition, which in turn sparked privately funded school meal programs in many cities. The programs were popular, but most were wiped out by the Great Depression, at which point the federal government stepped in with emergency programs. Those programs were so popular that they eventually gave rise to the National School Lunch Act, passed in 1946.

The act created a three-tiered system: Children in poverty received a free lunch, children whose families were above the poverty line but still struggling economically got a price reduction, and everyone else paid full price. The cost of a full-price lunch was set by states and sometimes by districts: in 2014-2015, the last pre-pandemic school year for which data is available, the average was $2.42.

This system was “better than nothing,” Ruis said — millions of children in poverty received free lunch under the program, but it had problems. The income thresholds — set at 130 percent of the federal poverty line for a free lunch — were too low to help all families in need, especially in areas with a high cost of living. For example, “most families in New York are going to be struggling at 200 percent of the poverty line, 250 percent of the poverty line, 300 percent of the poverty line,” said Crystal FitzSimons, who leads work on school meal access at the nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

News of lunch debt and “lunch-shaming” repeatedly went viral in the late 2010s, sometimes inspiring individuals to pay off the debt of entire schools. But this philanthropy didn’t solve the root problem: School lunches were unaffordable for too many families.

Meanwhile, lunch-shaming revealed another big problem with the three-tiered system: stigma.

When free lunch is only available to kids in poverty, those kids invariably feel singled out, even in the absence of overt lunch-shaming tactics. East Hampton schools don’t identify kids receiving free lunch in any way, Bove said, but “it doesn’t matter. They feel it. They feel that they are different.”

The result is often that kids who can’t afford lunch, especially older ones, just don’t eat lunch at all. “If all your friends are packing their lunch, you’re not going to go into the cafeteria and get your free meal,” Bove said. “You’re going to just sit hungry with them.”

In March 2020, however, everything about school lunch suddenly changed. Kids weren’t going to the cafeteria anymore, but “everyone was very aware of the millions of kids who rely on free and reduced price school meals,” FitzSimons said. In fact, there was more need than ever as the economy plunged sharply into a recession and food banks became overwhelmed. Schools needed to be able to give students meals quickly and without a lot of face-to-face interaction in a time when vaccines were not yet available. So Congress passed a series of waivers allowing schools to give a free meal to any student, without regard to their family income.

Besides helping families and relieving schools of the administrative burden of processing free lunch applications, the waivers were also a welcome change for cafeteria workers and other school staff. “People who work in schools are caregivers,” Ruis said. “They care about their kids, and they don’t want to be enforcing debt collection.”

The new system wasn’t perfect. Some districts offered food pickup only during very limited time windows, making it difficult for families to get meals, said GeDá Jones Herbert, education special counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. At least one district, in Leeds, Alabama, simply shut down its food distribution program when it became overwhelmed by the number of families who needed free meals. Such shutdowns and access barriers disproportionately impacted Black families, who were less likely to live near a meal distribution site.

In many cases, however, the Legal Defense Fund and other advocates were able to improve access — the Leeds district, for example, reinstated meal distribution after the group sued. And overall, experts say the federal waivers were a huge step in the right direction. They allowed school nutrition programs to “operate the way they always should,” FitzSimons said. “Kids are in school for six-and-a-half, seven hours a day. They need to have access to nutrition in order to learn and focus and concentrate.”

After several extensions, Congress allowed the waivers to lapse just as the 2022-23 school year was beginning. Districts notified families that they’d have to apply if they wanted their child to keep receiving free meals. In East Hampton, it didn’t go well. “I was getting calls constantly trying to figure out how to apply,” Bove said. And when the applications were in, those calls turned into questions about why they don’t qualify and why they no longer get free meals.

East Hampton never turns a child down for a meal, Bove said. But when they eat and don’t pay, they rack up debt — and often, they know it. One middle schooler, Bove said, asked the cafeteria cashier every day if his application for free lunch had gone through yet: “He was so worried about the debt.”

East Hampton is on pace to have $13,000 in lunch debt this year, up from a previous high of around $3,000. The problem is even worse now than before the pandemic “because people are so in need right now,” Bove said.

The district tries to collect the debt from parents, but often, that doesn’t work. “I know the families who have these large balances,” Bove said. “They’re not just choosing not to pay it; they cannot pay it.” So at the end of the year, the debt will have to come out of the district budget. That could mean putting off getting new Chromebooks for students, or not hiring a paraprofessional for one of the classrooms. “I don’t know where it comes from, because we’ve never had to deal with this before,” Bove said.

For many district officials and nutrition advocates, the success of the federal waivers and the mess that schools find themselves in now send a clear message that free meals should be permanent for all children. A bill introduced in 2019 by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) would do that, but it gained little traction at the time, and its prospects in the current Congress are slim. That leaves states and districts on their own to figure out how to feed kids.

Two states, California and Maine, have made universal free meals permanent, while several others are considering such a move. Meanwhile, a growing number of districts across the country are taking advantage of a provision in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed by President Barack Obama, that allows schools and districts to offer free meals to all if a certain percentage of students are low-income.

This approach has shown big benefits for schools and districts that can meet the threshold. In New York City, for example, which began offering lunch free to all students in 2017, a recent report found that free meals made students feel safer at school, and improved their perceptions of bullying and fighting. “School cafeterias are particularly salient in shaping school climate,” said Emily Gutierrez, a research associate at the Urban Institute who wrote the report. And “providing universal free meals takes away any visible indicators of kids having less than someone else,” which in turn can reduce bullying. Other research in New York City found that the free meals improved math and reading test scores as well.

In the absence of federal action, though, these benefits are reserved for districts that can qualify — and those that can’t have to go it alone. For Bove, it makes no sense.

“If we don’t prioritize hungry children, I don’t know what we prioritize,” she said. “I don’t know what else is more important than that.”