Health Care

States expand free school meals as Covid-era funding ends

As federal relief funding begin to wane, a growing number of states are dedicating new funding to make permanent COVID-era programs that provided school students with free meals.
This Jan.17, 2012 photo shows Roosevelt High School junior students, from left, Allison Ruiz, Miriam Ramon, Maria Valenzuela eat lunch at their school cafeteria in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

A number of states are working to make permanent free school meal programs after losing COVID-era federal funding that fed millions of children through the pandemic.

Legislators in California and Maine have already approved programs that extend free school meals to students. Nevada, Vermont and Massachusetts have all used state money to extend the federally-funded meals program through the end of the current school year.

And advocates say legislators in some of the bluest and reddest states in America — Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah and Wisconsin — are likely to pass their own measures next year.

Voters in Colorado will decide in November on the nation’s first stand-alone ballot measure to provide free school meals across the state.

“That will be a really critical moment for us,” said Jill Birnbaum, senior vice president of field advocacy operations at the American Heart Association, which backs universal school meal programs. “It’s a real-world example of how the public feels about it.”

Children’s health advocates have long said free school meals are as essential to learning as desks or textbooks. They say giving everyone free meals eliminates shame and stigma for the lower income students who qualify for federal free and reduced lunch programs, and that many families whose incomes are too high to qualify still struggle to pay for food, especially as inflation eats into grocery budgets. 

“This is the only support during the school day that students aren’t receiving for free,” said Anne Moertel, the communications manager for the Center for Ecoliteracy, which advocated for the California bill. “There are free school books, free classrooms and free teachers. You need food to learn, yet that’s the only item during the school day that we’re still charging families for.”

Research suggests that universal meal programs improve children’s health and academic performance and can be associated with improved household incomes and financial success in low-income school districts. 

School districts sometimes serve different meals to students who qualify for free or reduced price meals. Some devote school resources to tracking down meal debt.

Opponents of the free meals programs, including the influential conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, argue that parents, not the government, should be responsible for feeding children. Taxpayers, those groups say, should not be asked to pay for food for families who can afford it. 

The coronavirus pandemic represented a turning point toward the free meal approach. When schools across the country shut down in 2020, Congress approved waivers, signed by former President Donald Trump, that allowed school districts to serve free meals to all their students and lifted requirements on how and what kind of food they served. The waivers allowed an estimated 10 million additional students to receive school meals every day. 

But those waivers expired in June, in the face of opposition from Senate Republican leaders who wanted to trim government spending. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress brokered a deal to extend some of them through the summer and increase federal reimbursements for school meals for the 2022-2023 school year. But many school districts have also raised the price of their school meals to cope with inflation. 

Still, the pandemic exposed how much communities rely on schools for childrens’ nutrition, and school districts showed that they were capable of delivering meals even when they were closed. 

Stymied in Washington, D.C.,, advocates have asked states to extend the programs — in hopes that Congress will take note.

Both measures in California and Maine passed in 2021 with bipartisan support. California lawmakers allocated $650 million in the first year of the program, thanks to an unexpected budget surplus. In June, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a state budget that provided additional money for a higher reimbursement rate for meals, more kitchen staff and training and increased access to locally grown food. 

Maine’s legislation created statutory language in the state budget providing free meals for all students, and a $10 million fund for student meals. 

Colorado voters are being asked to approve a limit on state income tax deductions for those who make more than $300,000 a year. That money would fund reimbursements for participating schools districts and raises for front-line cafeteria workers, beginning in the 2023-2024 school year. The program would also reimburse school districts that purchase locally-produced food.

A poll conducted in April and released in May by Hunger Free Colorado, the committee supporting the ballot measure, found that 60% of Colorado voters favored the measure, while 30% said they would vote against it.

Hunger Free Colorado estimates that participation in school meal programs increased by 20% to 40% in many Colorado school districts during the pandemic. 

“Public education is an important investment states make, and if kids are hungry while they are learning, that investment is wasted,” said Ashley Wheeland, Hunger Free Colorado’s director of public policy. 

The group has raised $1.6 million. It has launched television advertisements featuring a cafeteria worker, a farmer, and Genevieve Bassett, a teacher in the Denver area at a school where 86% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Bassett said in an interview that she covered more material in her U.S. history class while students received free meals than she had in any other year of her career.

“It was a game changer,” she said. “You could see the change in behavior. Attendance was up in my classroom. Engagement was up. It was just like one more thing they didn’t have to worry about, which was awesome.”

The ballot measure hasn’t attracted organized opposition, though the libertarian Independence Institute is urging voters to vote against it. The group did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment for this story. Independence Institute President Jon Caldara told Colorado Public Radio that the measure was unnecessary. 

“Nobody wants to be evil enough to say it, but this is a really stupid idea,” he said. “Most kids in Colorado do not need this. And in fact, those who do, already have this.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said earlier this month that he hasn’t made  up his mind how he will vote on the measure. 

“I don’t have an objection to the funding mechanism, but at the same time I sort of ask myself, if we had this, would it be better just to be able to pay teachers better, reduce class size?” he said. “Or is the best use of it lunches for upper- middle-income families?” 

His Republican opponent Heidi Ganahl told Colorado Public Radio she was open to the measure.  

“I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but I do want to make sure that every child has access to healthy food and lunches,” she said. 

Nationally, advocates say the fate of the Colorado measure could spur interest among lawmakers in more conservative areas. But they also acknowledge that similar measures could still be a heavy lift in states with the highest levels of child poverty, where state resources are more limited, without more federal support. 

Moertel, of the Center for Ecoliteracy, recalled bringing up universal school meals to an ally in Kentucky, who was trying to get more breakfast served in schools. 

“She wasn’t talking about free or paid, she was just trying to get more students to eat breakfast in school,” Moertel said. “And she said, ‘That all just blows past me, because that’s not where we’re at.’ For universal school meal advocates, the idea is, if we can go around and start to get it in a lot of states, we can really make the case why this is good federal policy.”