Last month, the USDA extended a pandemic response program allowing public schools to serve free meals to all children for the 2020-21 school year. This unprecedented move came thanks to the voices of hundreds of organizations across sectors, from public health and education to the environment and social justice, responding to the serious challenges families and schools continue to face as the economic downturn from the pandemic continues. In effect, the government has established the country’s first ever Universal Free School Meal program for the rest of the current school year.
This potentially game-changing innovation creates an opportunity to tackle a question that child nutrition advocates have long been asking: should we make Universal Free School Meals a permanent policy in the U.S.?
School meals are one of our country’s most powerful tools for delivering nutrition security to children, particularly those whose families are struggling to make ends meet. This year they are more important than ever, at a time when a shocking 14 million children in the U.S. are going hungry on a regular basis.
But even in the best of times, too many struggling families don’t receive adequate nutrition assistance: in 2018, long before Covid-19 disrupted our lives, Feeding America reported that food insecurity affected one in eight Americans (about 37 million people, including 11 million children) and only half of these families met the federal qualification for free school lunch and SNAP.
Some cities like New York City and Houston already provide free meals to all of their students and others are looking to follow suit. From these programs we know that universal meals increase children’s access to healthy food, improve academic performance, and can reduce the risk of obesity.
Now, as we embark on this national experiment to provide free school meals across the country, here are the outcomes we should be watching for: