Schools serve millions of meals to students every day, making them the largest set of food distribution sites in the United States. When schools began to close in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 30 million children risked losing access to free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.
To maintain access to meals during widespread school closures, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The bill allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer waivers that provided more flexibility for school meal distribution and made school meals temporarily free for all students. These flexibilities helped minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 by making it easier and faster for students to receive meals, and they helped families who were financially impacted by the pandemic.
The end of the universal free school meal waivers come during a time of soaring food prices. The USDA estimates food prices are about 10% higher than this time last year and will increase an additional 5% to 6% this year.
The waivers were set to expire June 30, but Congress extended them through September with the Keep Kids Fed Act. Students will have access to free meals over the summer, and eligibility-based free and reduced-price meal programs will resume in the fall. The act also extended the meal-pattern flexibility waivers through the 2022-23 school year. This means families can continue to pick up meals to take home and meals can be served in non-congregate settings; other flexibilities may remain in place to reduce the risk of spreading COVID.
The end of the universal free school meal waivers come during a time of soaring food prices. The USDA estimates food prices are about 10% higher than this time last year and will increase an additional 5% to 6% this year. The price increases are attributed to supply chain issues, increased shipping costs, the war in Ukraine and a bird flu outbreak among poultry. To help schools continue to pay for their meals, the Keep Kids Fed Act increases reimbursement rates for school food purchases.
The national free school meal waivers will end soon, but many state legislatures have acted in recent years to make school meals more affordable and nutritious, and to increase access for all students.
Expansion of Free School Meals
States have worked to expand access to free school meals to ensure students don’t face financial barriers accessing breakfast and lunch at school. Twenty states have considered or passed legislation to establish universal free school meals. California (A 130), Colorado (H 1414), Maine (H 156) and Vermont (S 100) were the first states to implement such programs. When the national meal waivers end, these states will pay for all student meals, regardless of income. This approach removes the need for parents to register their children for free school meals. New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and South Carolina have similar bills pending.
Other states have passed bills to increase access to free school meals to students who meet certain eligibility requirements. New Jersey (A 2368) made school meals free for all students whose family income is less than 200% above the federal poverty line; the bill has been sent to the governor. Washington (H 1342) and New Mexico (H 10) made all school meals free for students who are federally eligible for reduced-price breakfast and lunch. Massachusetts (H 3999) required all schools where 50% or more of the students are federally eligible for free or reduced-price meals to elect to a community eligibility provision that provides universal free school meals for all students. Typically, schools can choose whether to opt in to the community eligibility provision. Kentucky (H 9) extended the federal requirements for free or reduced-price meal offerings to charter schools.
Alternative Meal Options
Some states have expanded their offerings and flexibilities for school breakfast. Utah (H 222) created a program that requires all schools with 30% or more of their students applying for free or reduced-price meals to provide the option for students to receive breakfast after the school day begins. Massachusetts (H 4218) created a similar alternative breakfast service model with its Breakfast After the Bell Program, which provides breakfast during the instructional part of the day to all students at high-poverty schools. Kentucky (S 151) allows schools to reallocate 15 minutes of instructional time for breakfast.
Other states have expanded meal options during other parts of the day. Virginia (H 2135) required all schools in which 50% or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to participate in an Afterschool Meal Program, which expands the number of meals the schools provide.
Illinois (S 805) required schools to develop an Unused Food Program, allowing third-party organizations to offer leftover school meals to low-income children to take home. This helps fight food insecurity by providing students with additional meals and reduces food waste. Alabama (H 566) passed a similar bill making this an option available to schools.
School Meal Debt
South Carolina (H 3006) prohibited schools from using collection agencies to recover unpaid meal fees and banned schools from applying interest, fees or monthly penalties for outstanding school meal debt. Virginia (H 583) prevented schools from keeping students with school meal debt out of extracurricular activities. New York (S 5151) barred schools and districts from taking legal action against parents or guardians for unpaid meal fees.
Nutrition and Farm-to-School Programs
States have passed a variety of bills to improve the nutrition of the school meals that students receive. West Virginia (H 3073) passed a bill to assess student eating habits and nutrition to examine how to enhance school meals. Wyoming (H 52) created a project that provides grants to promote protein-rich diets with Wyoming-grown meat. Illinois (H 4089) required all schools to provide a plant-based diet option for students.
Forty-three states have established farm-to-school programs, which encourage healthy eating and to support local farms by promoting the purchase of fresh, locally grown produce. Additionally, many farm-to-school programs promote garden and nutrition education programs. Arkansas (H 1615) and Nebraska (L 396) are the most recent states to establish programs.
Other Child Nutrition Bills
While most child nutrition bills are directly related to school meals, some states are trying other approaches. For example, Illinois (S 1846/H 3490) regulates the drinks restaurants serve to children to ensure that beverages served with meals are nutritious, with less-healthy drinks available by request. Missouri (H 432), with its Protection of Vulnerable Persons Act, provides vouchers for pregnant women and families with infants and children under 5 to use for eligible food at farmers markets.
Robbie Economou is the Emerson National Hunger Fellow in NCSL’s Children and Families Program.