Universal School Meals

America needs school meals for all students now.

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In July, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott introduced the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act (H.R. 7887). Under the act, all students would temporarily be made eligible for free school meals during the 2020-2021 school year through the School Breakfast Program (SBP) and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

CSPI, as well as several other major organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, School Nutrition Association, National PTA, and many others, support this legislation. Congress must pass the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act as part of the next COVID relief package.

What are universal meals?  

Universal meals allow all enrolled children in a school that operates the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program to receive free breakfast and free lunch, regardless of their family’s income. Universal meals negate the need for families to apply or schools to verify eligibility for the programs and give flexibility to school nutrition programs so that they can keep feeding kids no matter what the new school day structure looks like.

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Universal School Meals in the Media

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 30 million school children relied on school meals. Now, millions of families find themselves in financial trouble that many have never experienced before. In May 2020, more than 20 percent of parents living with children under 19 reported that their households experienced food insecurity during the prior 30 days. This crisis is even more pressing for Black and Hispanic families with children, who reported food insecurity rates twice that of white households with children. Nearly four in 10 Black and Hispanic households with children reported not having enough to eat. 

For many students, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive that day. School meals provide good nutrition for children. Research shows that the school meal nutrition standards established in 2012 decreased the risk of childhood obesity among children in poverty by half over five years. 

The benefits of universal meals are widespread

 

Universal Meals Promote Nutrition

  • Universal meals ensure that all students get two free, healthy meals every school day, giving children the tools that they need to succeed in school. 
  • Data from the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) found that serving free meals to all kids improved attendance rates, improved grade promotion, and increased participation in school lunch. It is reasonable to assume that universal meals could have the same positive impact.
  • By negating the need to stand in line to pay for meals, universal meals allow children more time to eat their meals.

 

Universal Meals Advance Equity

  • Universal meals remove stigma from children participating in the program, provide equitable access to healthy meals and levels the playing field, and remove draconian measures schools may take to feed children who cannot pay. 
  • Universal meals ensure that children who might be on the edges of eligibility, or children who are experiencing homelessness, have recently immigrated, have caregivers who may struggle with administrative paperwork, or are in foster care do not fall through the cracks. 
  • Given the current unstable economy, more children will likely be eligible for free meals this upcoming school year and their eligibility status may fluctuate. Universal meals make sure that no children – particularly our most vulnerable children and children who are on the line of eligibility – fall through the cracks.  

 

Universal Meals Support Struggling Families 

  • Due to COVID’s economic impact, there will be children who will likely weave in and out of eligibility, and families who have never navigated the social safety net system before and may not know their children are now eligible for free or reduced-price school meals or may be too ashamed to apply.  
  • Combined with a non-congregate waiver, universal meals will ensure that children continue to eat while not at school and reduce burden on families. 

 

Universal Meals Support School Nutrition Programs

  • Universal meals help ensure that schools can continue to operate the federal child nutrition programs in a moment of unprecedented financial losses. 
  • By reducing administrative burden on school food service staff, providing a steady budget for school food service programs so they may remain fiscally solvent, eliminating unpaid meal balances, and taking pressure off school food service programs to increase revenue by serving foods that may be lower in nutritional quality, universal meals allow programs to focus on their primary function: feeding children healthy meals.  

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