A push to provide free meals to all students—regardless of their family’s income—is gaining traction thanks, in part, to a pandemic-era trial run that brought to light the benefits to children’s well-being and academics.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued waivers that allowed school districts to offer free meals to all students, no matter their socioeconomic status. Nearly all districts did so, providing universal free meals through the 2021-22 school year. But when those waivers expired over the summer, the pandemic experiment came to an end for most, and charges resumed.
Without the waivers, students and their families are required to pay for their meals if they don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals, based on their income. The cost of a meal varies by state, but, on average, is about $2.48 for elementary students and $2.74 for high schoolers, according to the School Nutrition Association.
In the months since, districts across the country have seen ballooning school meal debt, and calls for national efforts to institute a permanent free meal program have intensified. Advocates say the effort eliminated stigma that can come when students can’t afford meals. They also point out that students are better prepared to learn if their basic needs, like being fed, are taken care of.
“Nobody wants to go back to a system where some kids are able to eat and some are not,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research & Action Center.
FitzSimons said that even though many families don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals, they may still struggle to pay.
Opponents generally say feeding children is their family’s job, not the schools’. Some also say the effort would lead to an overreliance on the government.
But despite the potential challenges, some states have forged ahead. California, Maine, and Colorado have passed laws to establish universal free meals.
Educators largely support the push for expanded free meals
Educators shared their opinions about universal free meals on EdWeek’s social media channels. Many would like to follow the lead of states that have established universal free meal programs, but they brought additional nuances to the conversation.
Some, for example, support the intent of free meals, but worry about footing the bill just to have lots of food go to waste.
Here’s what they had to say, grouped in several themes.
While many teachers support the concept and intent of free meals for all, some said they are concerned low-quality meals would deter some students or lead to an increase in food waste.
“I am [in] favor of ‘free’ school lunches that kids will actually eat. I am a teacher in a low income public school with free lunch for all students. The truly hungry kids will eat their lunch and ask for seconds. A good majority of students throw most of their ‘free to them’ lunch away. Parents, community members, and legislators would be horrified to see the amount of food that is thrown away.”
“No. The intention [is] good, but there is so much waste. The kids are forced to fill their trays with an entree, a vegetable, a fruit and milk, wether they eat/drink or not. Most of it goes in the trash. I’ve been the cafeteria lady for a few years.”
“Sounds great but is not sustainable financially. When we were distance-learning even low income children took their free lunches, pick the things they wanted and threw the rest away”
“Completely in favor! While we’re at it, these meals should be of quality (I’ve seen waste because the food is barely edible) and students should get a decent lunch time to eat/unwind”
Importance of nutrition
Teachers recognize that it’s difficult for students to focus on their schoolwork if their basic needs, like being fed, aren’t taken care of first.
“Yes. 100%. Maslow. If basic needs aren’t being met, you absolutely cannot expect a child or a person to learn or do what they are expected. If a kid’s stomach is growling in class due to hunger, you better believe that is what they are thinking about. Plus…why would it ever be a bad thing to feed our kids?”
“I definitely support this! When kids don’t eat properly, they can’t learn as well. I am grateful that the school lunches where I teach are both tasty, creative, and healthy. …”
“Yes! And food that adults would actually eat-what they currently serve is so low quality I would rather skip lunch than eat it when I forget my lunch. I realize that nothing is ‘free’, but feeding kids healthy, enjoyable meals to get them through their day is a priority, way over some other government chosen spending.”
“Yes. We’re essentially legally requiring students to be in schools. We’re obligated to give them food if they’re obligated to be here.”
Denying students access to the same hot meals as their peers because they can’t afford it can lead to stigma and bullying, educators say. Some families don’t know how or are unwilling to complete paperwork to qualify for free meals, sometimes due to shame or guilt, or because they must supply a social security number, which can be a deterrent for undocumented parents.
“Yes! As a student teacher and a prior Preschool and Pre-K teacher, I have seen students of all different socioeconomic classes walk in starving, without a lunch. I think that if what we hope for is equitability, we should allow all students a free lunch and not ask why.”
“Of all the worries on the minds of our children, a good meal while in the hands of a safe school system should not be one of them. There can be worry & embarrassment from all sides for Ss (free, reduced, full price) so let’s just take that away. Free, quality food for all.”
“Absolutely!! I taught middle school for 30 years and these kiddos are so self conscious. Giving everyone free lunch removes the economic stigma.”
“Definitely, I’ve had too many ELLs who definitely qualified for free lunch, but were too confused or unwilling to answer the questions on the application”
Educators witness firsthand how hunger affects students’ academic and behavioral performance. Many said they stock their classrooms with snacks—on their own dimes—or pay for students’ meals to ensure none of their students go without food.
“Yes because I’ve had to tell a hungry child they could only grab an apple and some milk or pay for their lunch myself and it is not fair to the child or to the teachers that care for them every day to be put in that position.”
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Breakfast and lunch! After working at schools that had free lunches for all, then moving to a school district that did not, I found more kids hungry and I ended up stocking snacks (cereal bars, etc) in my room for students. So many came to school hungry.”
“Good lord, yes. I keep cases of food (mostly bars) in my room. We all have enough problems. Enough to eat should not be one.”
“YES Lots of my kids who don’t qualify can’t afford. I spend lots of money on snacks every week.”
“I have a hard time imagining why any teacher wouldn’t support having food available for free for any student who needs it. Most of us have been providing students with food on our own; it’s nice to see that issue recognized and resolution coming from the larger system instead of from what we work for to feed our own families.”
Some educators argue that free school meals for all students shouldn’t stop at lunch, either.
“Yes, yes, & yes!!! Schools need to feed all children free breakfast and lunch! There are parents whose gross income looks great on paper but net income with 3 or more children will add another bill that is not needed. Let’s help our families not have to worry about trying to fix breakfast and lunches or make sure their children have money to eat at school. …”
“Free lunch and free breakfast – and then if a kid is still hungry allow them back into the line. Child hunger is real. Btw I agree w quality food too. And no shaming in the line!”
“I’m for lunch and breakfast. Everything else aside what is best for the kids.”
“Absolutely yes. Free breakfast and lunches helped ALL kids and families. When kids have access to free meals, they learn better and feel better.”
Students aren’t the only people in the school building who would benefit from free school meals, these educators say.
“Yes! But also free breakfast for teachers! #TeachersLoveFrenchToastSticksToo”
“I’d like the teachers to get free lunch too. Just saying. Yes—feed the kids”
“Yes, 100%. I think teachers should get free lunch too.”
Not all educators take the pro-free lunch view. Opponents weighed in, too.
“No, I’m not. I’m a parent and a teacher. It is my responsibility to feed my kids. It is not my responsibility to feed other people’s kids. Screw that. There is no such thing as a ‘free’ lunch. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for it – the other students.”
“The $ for this will have to come from somewhere, if it takes teacher’s salaries then I’m in favor of only low-income based free lunch and keeping the wealthiest families paying, however I think there could be some funds for times when even they struggle/forget.”
“Not really. Unnecessary cost for some schools and some school districts. #Food is hard but this is not a good solution.”
“No. When I went to school mom made me a sandwich. We paid 25 cents a week for milk. We ate in our classroom (elementary school) for 30 minutes then 30 minute recess. We didn’t have a cafeteria. PARENTS were responsible for providing lunch. Many parents on food stamps. Use them”
“No. Most students do not need or would qualify for a free lunch. Relying on the government for food has never worked out at any point in history.”