By Eleanor Bader / Truthout
“It is deeply immoral for lawmakers to decide that the needs of a growing number of people do not matter,” Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, told Truthout. “The immorality of knowing what is needed and then refusing to provide it is cruel and shows the disdain of our society for both kids and the poor.”
Theoharis could be speaking about a number of things — inaction on climate change, gun control or single-payer health insurance, among them — but she is not. Instead, she is expressing her outrage over the federal government’s refusal to continue a universal school meals program that provided free daily breakfast and lunch to 50.6 million U.S. public school children during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program expired in June 2022.
“Republicans stopped free food distribution,” Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, told Truthout. “Some Democrats pushed for continuation of universal meals from behind the scenes, but they did not make it a public political issue. That was a mistake. You can’t win a fight you don’t have. This, plus the tendency to pretend that the pandemic has gone away” allowed free meal provision to end in favor of a “return to normalcy.”
As a result, we now have a patchwork, with individual states determining school meal policy for the students who are enrolled in their schools. California, Colorado and Maine, along with a handful of cities including Boston, Chicago and New York, have opted to provide universal free meals to all, but the remaining 47 states and most cities have, for the most part, reverted to a means-tested system in which caregivers have to complete an application to determine their child’s eligibility for meal subsidies. This puts students in one of three categories: full payers, partial payers and nonpayers.
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But even this tells only part of the story since there are numerous policies that further complicate the program’s administration. For example, some students — those whose families receive SNAP (“food stamps”) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare) — are automatically eligible for free school meals. Similarly, kids in Head Start, foster care or who are homeless, are also automatically eligible.
And then there’s the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Under CEP, schools in which 40 percent of the student body qualify for free or reduced-fee meals can provide free food to every student. During the 2021-22 year, 33,330 schools — one-third of the total — participated; more than 16 million kids a day were fed.
Non-CEP schools, however, continue to be hamstrung by paperwork to determine payment tiers for each student.
“We’ve heard about families that are over the income eligibility limit (between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, a maximum of $33,874 for a household of two or $51,338 for four), but are still struggling to pay their bills,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association (SNA), told Truthout. “The application only takes income into account, so if you’ve had a health crisis that left you with outstanding bills, or have been hit with a huge rent increase, these expenses are not factored in.”
The result is that schools and students are scrambling. A few states, including Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont, have extended universal meal access through the end of the 2022-23 school year, and advocates are working hard — pressuring lawmakers and mobilizing impacted students, families, educators and education activists — to make the programs permanent. “Kids in Vermont and Alabama have the same nutritional needs,” Pratt-Heavner says. “Hunger is a federal problem and it needs a federal solution.”
Nutrition professionals, she adds, stress the importance of school meals. In fact, it is well-documented that hunger is directly tied to poor academic performance. “No child should have to learn on an empty belly,” National Education Association (NEA) President Becky Pringle wrote in an email to Truthout. Furthermore, she points out that while food insecurity can be found in every community, the crisis is the worst in low-income Black, Brown and Indigenous communities.
This has had a discernible impact on classroom learning, Pringle says. Furthermore, she reports that educators repeatedly tell the NEA that they’re seeing increased student hunger, with distracted and tired kids having trouble concentrating, staying motivated and behaving appropriately in class.
Child nutritionists say that these are typical symptoms of nutritional deficits, which is why school meals are required to adhere to strict nutritional standards, with fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and protein in every meal.
But even this can be problematic.
Tammra Fabis is a food service team leader in the Huntley, Illinois, school district. While she supports universal meals for all, she told Truthout that she is nonetheless concerned about food waste. “We are required to give every child three of five components at lunchtime: a dairy product, something whole grain, a protein, a vegetable and a piece of fruit,” she begins. “Kids might only want French fries but we have to give them the full meal. This means that a lot of food ends up in the garbage. We have set up a sharing table, where a student can put unwanted packaged vegetables or fruit, but it seems as if every good intention butts up against a rule that creates other problems.”
Then there is the issue of arrears, money owed by students and their families for unpaid meals. “By Illinois law, a student can go up to $500 negative without repercussions,” Fabis says. And while cafeteria staff make sure not to shame students whose caregivers have fallen behind, skyrocketing food and utility costs have made it difficult for many cafeterias to make ends meet.
The federal government, Pratt-Heavner says, is well aware of the problem, and in July 2022 allocated an additional 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast to the amount it reimburses schools for each meal served. “Even with the higher rate,” she says, “schools are struggling to cover costs.”
This year, she explains, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees school food distribution and program administration, gives schools $4.45 for every lunch dished out. This fee is expected to cover everything: from food to labor. Pratt-Heavner stresses that it does not.
What’s more, a fall 2022 survey conducted by SNA revealed accumulated debt of $19.2 million in overdue meal fees. “School meals programs are facing a looming financial crisis,” Pratt-Heavner says. “By next year, some school meals programs will be unable to pay their expenses.” They not only need arrears to be paid, but they need a higher government reimbursement rate. “Every program is expected to be financially self-sufficient,” she says, “and operate in the black through federal reimbursement and food sales. This is increasingly impossible.”
Pratt-Heaver adds that despite an annual readjustment of reimbursement levels, the rates have not kept pace with inflation. They have also sidestepped supply chain disruptions. “Charitable contributions have helped,” she adds, “but donations are not a sustainable solution to the hunger crisis. We need federal movement on this.”
Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), agrees, but adds that she does not expect much movement from the current Congress. Instead, FRAC is putting energy into state universal meal campaigns — campaigns that are already winning modest reforms. North Carolina, for one, recently eliminated the reduced-fee copay for the 2022-23 year so students are either full-payers or eat for free; Pennsylvania allocated funding so that every student can receive a free breakfast five days a week.
Still, advocates concede that a great deal remains to be done to eliminate child hunger — a condition that Feeding America estimates impacts 1 in 8 U.S. kids. Part of the challenge, FitzSimons says, is addressing stigma. “Before the pandemic, 29 million kids were certified as eligible for free or reduced-fee meals, but only 22 million took advantage of it. We see kids who are eligible opt out — in some cases they do not want to stand in a separate line to be handed a meal — especially as they get older. This is another advantage of universal meals.”
Neil Rickard, a child nutrition advocate at Utahns Against Hunger, says that stigma is particularly high among newly arrived immigrants in his state who fear that taking any kind of assistance will negatively impact their application for asylum. While it will not, he says that fear of being a “public charge” remains high. In addition, he says that particularly in rural Utah, parents are often unaware that universal meals have ended and do not realize that they need to fill out an application form. “Some parts of Utah have limited internet access,” he says, “and particularly in areas where much of the population can’t read English, they don’t know how to fill out the paperwork or who to ask for help.”
School pantries have been an important stop-gap for these families. “Schools try to send kids home with as much food as possible,” he says.
But in states like Mississippi, food insecurity is just one of many issues facing low-income residents. Danyelle Holmes, national social justice organizer at Repairers of the Breach/Poor People’s Campaign in Jackson, says that since the start of the 2022-23 school year, the ongoing water crisis has repeatedly shuttered schools throughout the city. “Pipes freeze. Water mains break almost daily. When schools close because of lack of water or issues of inadequate water pressure, the schools prepare bag lunches for the students. But the food has to be picked up. The buses don’t make deliveries to students when classes go virtual. Many parents don’t have cars, and walking a mile or two through dangerous areas to get a brown bag lunch is not an option. Kids literally go hungry when schools are closed,” Holmes told Truthout.
She blames long-term intentional neglect and racism for Jackson’s predicament.
Holmes is not alone in drawing this conclusion.
Hunger Free Vermont, a 30-year-old group working to end food insecurity in the Green Mountain state, lists numerous underlying causes of poverty and hunger: white supremacy and race-based inequities; the lack of affordable and available housing and child care; a shortage of living-wage jobs; and the high price of food, heat, medical care, and other essentials.
“We know that kids can’t learn well if they’re hungry,” Teddy Waszazak, universal school meals campaign director at Hunger Free Vermont, told Truthout. “This year, the state is providing free breakfast and lunch to all Vermont school kids and participation is up 16 percent overall. We have seen kids fall through the cracks when paperwork is required for them to eat. Our position is that as long as kids are required to spend eight hours a day, 180 days a year, in school, they should be fed.”
Hunger Free Vermont is working to make the state’s one-year universal food extension permanent, and it is mobilizing every impacted constituency — students, parents, social welfare agencies, unions, teachers, community activists and advocates — to demand that state lawmakers enact legislation that will do this.
Waszazak is confident that these efforts will make headway, but like other food activists, his goal is universal school meals in every region of the country, a demand that is echoed by the School Nutrition Association. At the same time, SNA supports incremental efforts, from the elimination of the reduced-fee meal copay, to lifting the free-meal eligibility threshold to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, to lowering Community Eligibility Provision eligibility so that more schools qualify, to upping USDA reimbursement levels to schools.
“Every child should have equal access to nutritious meals,” Pratt-Heavner says. “States and the federal government need to step up.”