Giving every child free lunch at school goes a long way toward ending hunger

Tim Vizer

The Biden Administration on Wednesday hosted the first White House conference to end hunger in America in four decades, even as thousands of school children in Kansas and Missouri were having to pay for their meal or not eat.

Biden wants to end hunger by 2030 for the 34 million Americans considered “food insecure,” by the federal government. Ways to meet that goal include expansion of food stamp eligibility and ending food deserts.

But one of the best approaches to ending hunger, expanding access to free meals for all students – an approach adopted during the pandemic, but sadly discontinued – is not on the list.

It should be.

Making free lunches the default for all students, regardless of income, has significant benefits, especially given the uncertain economy and spiking inflation. It removes any stigma attached to being on a free lunch program, ends the debt some families who don’t qualify for free lunches confront and makes sure all children have a healthy meal, regardless of whether their parents completed the necessary paperwork.

Biden has proposed a more cautious approach – expanding free lunches for 9 million more children, roughly the number who are food insecure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Local school leaders told us that under Biden’s plan, those schools where a majority of students qualify for free lunch would become a free-lunch school for all students. “But that is not free lunch for everyone,” which is what school food service workers have been asking for, said David Smith, a spokesman for the Shawnee Mission School District, where most schools would not have enough students qualifying for free lunch to benefit from Biden’s proposal.

We understand the reluctance to expand the program to include children whose parents could easily afford to pay for their lunches, but the benefits of an universal approach are significant.

Currently, the threshold to qualify for free lunches is very low. For instance, a single parent with two children making $41,000 would not qualify for even the reduced-priced lunch.

That leaves out a lot of parents struggling to make ends meet.

Free school meals for everyone improves attendance, decreases the risk of food insecurity, and eliminates the stigma that comes with receiving a free meal, studies show. The problem of accumulated debt on meal accounts also goes away.

We know that hunger has a negative impact on a student’s ability to succeed academically. According to No Kid Hungry, a national campaign to end childhood hunger, “1 in 6 children in the United States is growing up in a family that struggles with hunger.”

Ensuring every child has reliable access to the healthy food they need should be a universal goal. Universal school meals also means that more students actually eat nutritious school meals.

Universal free lunch wasn’t cheap. News reports at the time it was phased out said covering every student increased the annual cost from $19 billion to $30 billion. But it’s money well-spent. Even without the expansion, the program feeds 30 million children and as a food safety net is second in size and impact only to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – food stamps. For many children, the meal they eat at school is the only one they get on a given day.

Offering free lunch to all students, regardless of income, is the best way to ensure that every child who needs a healthy meal gets it. The program could always allow individual families who would rather pay for the lunches to make a contribution, or to opt out altogether and have their students bring lunches from home.

As it is, a lot of parents, who should, don’t fill out the paperwork, said John Mulford, deputy superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, the largest district in Missouri. In an April interview with the media Mulford said “often people assume they don’t qualify or maybe they feel like they have the means to pay.”

These days, with grocery prices so high, every family could benefit from one less expense. Relief in the form of free meals at school would help a lot of families and go a long way to getting the country closer to meeting the president’s ambitious goal to eliminate hunger in eight years.