Extending free school lunch for millions: ‘All that is lacking is political will’
Since I was a kindergartner up until I graduated high school, I ate free school lunch every single day. My single mother worked two jobs to keep me and my sister afloat. She would leave early in the morning and wouldn’t come back till late in the evening. Free school lunch was our lifeline. Growing up, I was unaware of the economic hardships my mother worked through. The only thing I knew is that I could go to school, and I could eat. My mother relied on the knowledge that for one meal of the day, she didn’t have to worry about paying or having the time to prepare it. She knew that while her daughters were at school, they were not going hungry because of free school meals.
My story is not unique; before the pandemic 4.9 billion school lunches were served annually with 20.1 million of them being free. School lunches have powered millions of children and have helped shape their futures. We celebrate that impact by recognizing October 10-14th as National School Lunch Week. This holiday was initiated by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 with the goal of promoting healthy school lunches. Sixty years later, anti-hunger advocates like the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) are calling on Congress to help the National School Lunch Program reach its full potential— free school lunch for all regardless of student’s ability to pay.
This progressive idea was practiced at the height of the pandemic. In 2020, Congress passed child nutrition waivers and later passed the Universal School Meals Program Act, which gave schools the necessary funding to provide universal school lunches to all students. Free school lunch was a game changer for families all over the country who were struggling from the brutal impacts of the pandemic. USDA reports that 26 million free school meals were served to students as a result of these pandemic-initiated programs. Unfortunately, these programs were only temporary and expired before the 2022 school year. For the first time in two years, parents are once again left wondering how they will be able to provide for their children.
Cassie Williams, mother of two told Today, “We save $100 a month by not having to buy and pack our kid’s lunches — that’s going to be a hit. But really, in my mind, the bigger savings from the free lunch program was just not having to worry about it.”
The shift has been so dramatic that even kids themselves are sacrificing their meals. NBC spoke with Marshall Troese, a senior in Pennsylvania, who often skips lunch out of fear of adding to his family’s financial burden, “There’s a point where you get used to being hungry,” he said.
Free school lunch is ending during a time when 5 million children live in food-insecure households. The latest Census Household Pulse Data states that 12.1 million families with children reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat within the last 7 days. These statistics demonstrate the need to make school lunches free and healthy — especially as most children consume half of their daily calories at school and children from food-insecure households consume an even higher portion. Congress has test-run the solution we need. We have seen free school lunches alleviate families’ financial burdens, reduce food insecurity, increase school participation and improve diet. As families are feeling the effects of inflation while still recovering financially from the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time to abandon them.
Luis Guardia, President of the Food Research & Action Center stated, “In its resolution creating National School Lunch Week sixty years ago, Congress called on all Americans to observe the week with ‘appropriate ceremonies and activities.’ We can think of no activity more appropriate than Congress permanently ensuring that every child has access to school meals regardless of ability to pay. We have the resources to accomplish this goal and the evidence showing its effectiveness. All that is lacking is political will.”