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Lessons from America's brief experiment with universal free school meals

Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, Tomoko Cho, Aldrin Agrabantes, April Thomas, and Marisel Dominguez, pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Los Angeles Unified School District food service workers from left, Tomoko Cho, Aldrin Agrabantes, April Thomas, and Marisel Dominguez, pre-package hundreds of free school lunches in plastic bags on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at the Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles. Flush with cash from an unexpected budget surplus, California is launching the nation's largest statewide universal free lunch program. When classrooms open for the fall term, every one of California's 6.2 million public school students will have the option to eat school meals for free, regardless of their family's income. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The universal free school meals program is over, just as inflation is rising.

“We hear daily about suppliers that are raising prices by anywhere between 30% to 130% for an item,” Lisa Davis, senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign, says. “And that’s putting a real strain on the programs that keep kids fed.”

School districts are also still feeling the strain from supply chain issues to staff shortages.

“Things have not gone back to normal, and they won’t any time soon,” Davis adds.

For the past two years, every child automatically qualified for free meals.

Now, the program is returning its focus on low income students and families:

“The heartbreaking part of it is that there are going to be a lot of kids that fall through the cracks.”

Today, On Point: A pandemic program that worked, but was eliminated anyway. We hear lessons from America’s brief experiment with universal free school meals.


Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign. (@nokidhungry)

Teresa Brown, administrator of ancillary services for St. Charles Parish Public Schools in Louisiana.

Krista Ruffini, assistant professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. Author of Schoolwide free-meal programs fuel better classroom outcomes for students. (@KristaRuffini)

Also Featured

Lorraine LeBlanc, of Ama, Louisiana.


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Lorraine LeBlanc lives in Alma, Louisiana. It’s about a half hour west of New Orleans. She’s a single mom with two young girls, ten and 16. So paying the bills has never been easy.

LORRAINE LeBLANC: We budget very tightly. We forgo a lot of stuff for necessity, so the kids have had to learn want, needs, necessity. And if it’s a necessity, we get it. If it’s a need, then it’s on the back burner until we either save for it, or I splurge and get it. So we all just kind of learn to budget.

CHAKRABARTI: Lorraine works full time for the local school district, so her income is above the federal poverty line, but not by much.

LeBLANC: We just float that threshold. So I find it slow. I don’t qualify for any other government benefits, so I don’t have any other part. So it’s a struggle. You know, it’s a burden. It really is.

CHAKRABARTI: But Lorraine does qualify for reduced price school meals for her two girls through the National School Lunch Program. Eligible families must have incomes between 30% to 85% more than the federal poverty line. So between $29,000 to $43,000 a year for a family of three. Therefore, instead of paying full price for school breakfast and lunch, Lorraine pays $0.40 per lunch and $0.30 per breakfast, which comes out to $252 a school year.

LeBLANC: Even if it’s a small amount, when you have the plan for it, you pay it. You plan for every dollar. So ot definitely hit my budget, even if it’s on a smaller scale.

CHAKRABARTI: But for the past two years, Lorraine, and every other family with schoolchildren in America, paid nothing at all. It was one of the most successful pandemic era programs created by Congress. In March 2020, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue dozens of child nutrition waivers.

Those waivers increased federal reimbursements sent to schools for their meals programs, and that allowed districts to offer universal, free meals to every family. 90% of schools used the increased funding to provide free meals to students regardless of income, according to the USDA. For Lorraine LeBlanc, not having to pay for school meals meant she had an extra $250 a year to spend on healthier foods at home.

LeBLANC: Fresh and healthier, equal dollar signs. And a lot of people don’t have the money. That’s the first thing to go. I know at my house, if we don’t have the money, we get food over produce, or we get frozen over fresh. Because sometimes frozen go on sale. So it really just depends, budget wise. And like I said, usually it’s nutrition, and that goes first. That’s what we can afford. That’s the only option we have.

CHAKRABARTI: It has been a tough two years for Lorraine. She didn’t lose her school district job during the pandemic, but last August her house was wrecked by Hurricane Ida. The storm ruined the dining room and they had to board it up. A year later, the plywood is still there, and the dining room not fixed.

LeBLANC: Every little bit that I save goes into a savings to try to help offset the costs when I do get the repairs, or I [am] able to get the repairs.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, surging inflation makes everything harder.

LeBLANC: So it’s definitely put a even bigger burden on us because it makes my budget even tighter. We stay home. We don’t go anywhere. We save on gas as much as possible. But yeah, we’ve cut down on everything. I mean, we’re probably worse than penny pinchers at this point, until we see some relief.

CHAKRABARTI: Lorraine had been experiencing at least a small measure of relief for as long as she didn’t have to pay for her daughter’s school lunches. Saving that $250 a year made a huge difference in their budget. But on June 30th, the Universal Free School Meals program expired. Congress failed to extend the USDA waivers.

We’ll hear more about why later in the show. But members did reach a bipartisan agreement on the Keep Kids Fed Act, a one year program that offers schools more flexibility and more federal reimbursements. However, no more universal free school meals, meaning only families whose income qualifies for a free or reduced meal are eligible next school year without the universal program.

Lorraine LeBlanc doesn’t know if she’ll meet the new criteria for free meals, which means she might have to once again pay that $252 a year for her daughters to eat at school. Money the family desperately needs to put elsewhere.

LeBLANC:  I really think that’s a gray area where people just fall just outside the realm of help. And that’s the ones that struggle the most, the ones that don’t qualify for a lot of assistance, but could use just a little bit. You know, even though it’s a small amount, it’s not a small amount to other people, especially with inflation and everything going up, that will hit smaller people harder.

CHAKRABARTI: USDA spends about $19 billion annually on its regular income based school lunch program. Making school lunches free to all students cost approximately $11 billion more. Now, while that might seem like a big spend, consider a comparison. In 2019, the Pentagon budgeted more than $22 billion for nine Virginia class nuclear submarines.

So if we compare new program to new program, $11 billion to make school meals universal for 50 million American schoolchildren, it’s exactly half of the $22 billion for nine new submarines. The Pentagon’s budget continues to grow while America’s experiment in proving to itself that it could feed every school age child has ended. So what did we learn from that experiment?

Questions range from: What business does the government even have subsidizing families that can’t afford to feed their children?

To, How did education itself change when everyone was guaranteed a meal?

Interview Highlights

What do you think is the most important thing you learned about this two-year experiment in feeding every schoolchild in America?

LISA DAVIS: “I think it’s really critical for people to realize that even though the health impacts of the pandemic have fortunately lessened, the financial impacts have not. There are millions of families, just like Lorraine’s, in every state and every county across America, families that earn a little bit too much money to be able to qualify for relief programs, but not nearly enough money to be able to meet their basic needs. And with rising food price inflation, gas prices, housing costs, a national childcare crisis, these families are desperate for help and we cannot leave them behind.”

Are these families the ones that qualify for the reduced price meals … and may soon, once again?

LISA DAVIS: “I think I’m particularly worried about families like Lorraine’s who qualify for that reduced price category. While we were relieved that Congress took bipartisan action to provide some relief to school meal programs, we were very disappointed that a provision that would have served free meals to kids who fall in that reduced price category got dropped in the 11th hour. We know that families in that category who are making less than about $49,000 per year for a family of four are facing extreme hardship.

“There are other families, too, that have incomes above $49,000 a year who are sitting at the kitchen table every night looking at their bills, and trying to see how they’re going to distribute the resources that they have, and falling short. In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, it would cost a family of four about $82,000 a year to meet their basic needs. So the need does go beyond that reduced price category as well.”

On the decision-making process in Washington to end the program

LISA DAVIS: “I think there are a couple of dynamics at play. The first is that early on in the pandemic, we saw truly unprecedented bipartisan collaboration to quickly enact a number of policies and new programs that got relief into the hands of families that were facing hunger at rates higher than we’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

“As the pandemic has continued on and some of those immediate health challenges that closed schools and closed businesses have abated, there is a sort of desperate desire to get back to normal, and I think for many a sense that we are back to normal.

“Which is not the case. Either for families, or for the schools and community meal programs that are serving them. And I think another dynamic that has returned is this concern about the deficit, and this unwillingness to invest in even the worthiest programs without having a corresponding cost savings or offset.

“And so the effort to extend the waivers in March got caught up in these dynamics. And as a result, we’ve seen a lot of confusion and chaos. Summer meal programs had actually begun in most of the country before Congress passed the Keep Kids Fed Act. And it’s really hard for programs who have committed staffing, have ordered food and supplies, to change their operations on a dime.”

What have you experienced about that with those impacts? Tell us some stories. 

TERESA BROWN: “Sure. So we have experienced an extreme labor shortage since COVID began. And that is not any better today. There’s a lot of dynamics there that have caused these labor shortages. And in order for us to prepare these meals, we are very blessed to produce a menu that is mainly scratch cooking. And we pride ourselves on that. And unfortunately, we’ve had to move away from that because we just don’t have the labor to bake that homemade bread for every menu that we want.

“We don’t have the labor to cook our gumbo from scratch every time. So we’re changing menus to accommodate our labor shortage, and we’re changing menus to accommodate our supply chain shortage. Prior to COVID, we had probably about a 95% fail rate on our orders. And, you know, we’ve experienced as low as 60% fail rate. Sometimes 50% fail rate. Depending on what’s going on in the market. That makes it really hard for us to do our job as operators.

“We do start planning our menus in October, you know, for the following school year, and we make those orders in the spring. So in March, we were, just like Lisa said, we were making orders and planning out, like finalizing everything. So to have that news delivered when you are planning or trying to plan with an A, B, C and D plan based on labor shortages, supply chain shortages, and now no flexibility from the government, was a blow for sure.

“And it really, really took us by surprise because we expected more support. It’s really going to be hard for districts to operate this upcoming school year. We appreciate the flexibility in meal pattern that we just recently experienced, and saw that have that action taken. But you are going to see districts struggle with going back to paid status, and our focus should always be on feeding our children.”

On thresholds for who qualifies for reduced or free lunch

LISA DAVIS:”I think there are two issues. The first is I’m really worried about this school year, and the more than 2 million kids that are in that reduced price category. Whose families we know are facing great hardship, and for whom paying for those meals is a significant cost in their budget. The Keep Kids Fed Act was a really good first step, but there’s more to be done.

“And we need to make sure that no child is facing hunger or stigma, especially this school year, when prices are rising so quickly, both for schools and for families. And we want to make sure that kids aren’t falling through the cracks. I think more longer term, we know that the income thresholds are not the right ones. There are many studies that show that there are families above those thresholds that are facing significant material hardship.

“They might not have enough money to qualify for government assistance, but their incomes fall very short of meeting their basic needs. And sometimes that can be the hardest on those families. Because the types of assistance that are available to families whose incomes are lower just aren’t available. And if we want every child to grow up healthy and strong, to thrive and succeed, that starts with making sure they aren’t going hungry.”

What would your message to Congress be?

TERESA BROWN: “My message would be … what is our end goal here? What is the purpose of our program? The purpose of our program is to support these children and to support their wellness. You know, feeding children is a basic need. Providing transportation is a basic need. You know, we need to have equity in those areas. So we are trying to meet the basic needs of children, all children, in an equitable environment. So that we can educate children.

“Children cannot learn, and we cannot have successful children, if their basic needs are not met. You know, by supporting this program, and moving to universal meals, will allow us to meet those basic needs and help children be successful. And be well, productive citizens in their life. So that’s our end goal. So we need to look at the end in mind, and that’s where we need to focus.”

On where money goes in America, and the future of the free school lunch program

LISA DAVIS: “I think you could ask any elected official in Congress, or in state or local government, and they would say it’s not acceptable that children go hungry. And so what we need them to do is to come together and put the money and the policy behind that belief. The thing to know about childhood hunger is that it is an eminently solvable problem, and we know how it will be solved. We just need the political will.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.