It might be an idea whose time hasn’t come, at least not yet. But a program that emerged from the federal government’s response to COVID-19 has planted the idea in food security, education and legislative circles that all students should get free breakfast and lunch if they choose, regardless of family income.
Called universal school meals and advocated under the banner hunger-free schools, the concept is that it is better to serve meals to all students than it is to engage in the bureaucratic exercise of application and vetting and the resulting stigma of identifying low-income students.
The connection between hunger and reduced learning is widely accepted and is at the heart of the 76-year-old federal school lunch program. There are also increasing concerns that current eligibility leaves out children who are at risk of being “food insecure.”
“Many students who don’t qualify for free and reduced price meals are not wealthy,” Darcy Stueber, the manager of school nutrition for the Mankato school district told a House committee. “They are middle-class families making ends meet every day.”
For the last two school years, the concept was tested by one of the congressional responses to the pandemic – waivers that allowed schools to offer meals to all students and also provided additional dollars. That COVID-related program ends June 30 and Minnesota legislative attempts to fund it with state money didn’t succeed. Still, the idea doesn’t appear to be going away.
“One of the good things we can point to during the pandemic that is something good that happened is this transformation to ‘we can just feed all the kids in the school,” said Leah Gardner, the policy director of the Hunger Free Schools coalition. “That spurred us on to launch the campaign.”
That was 18 months ago. And the experience with the federal waiver program was positive, she said, with student participation rates going up. Parents who got used to the program will learn come fall that what was free will no longer be. Low-income parents and school administrators will again have to fill out and process applications that show income levels.
Under the National School Lunch Program, families with income below 130 percent of the federal poverty level can receive free meals and those between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty can receive meals at reduced prices. The USDA estimates that in 2020, 76.9 percent of all meals under the program were free or at reduced prices.
The pandemic waivers expanded the program and while there were hopes that Congress would extend it, the money was not included in the springtime COVID relief package. While some Democrats pointed fingers at Republicans, President Biden had not included the extension and its $11 billion annual cost in his $22 billion pandemic supplemental request.
States have sought to do the work themselves. California and Maine adopted universal free lunch programs. Colorado voters will decide in November whether to pay for the program with state tax dollars.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz proposed using $183 million a year from the state revenue surplus to pay for school meals for all. That cost would grow to nearly $400 million in the next two-year budget period. While that expansion was included in House File 1729 by Rep. Sydney Jordan, DFL-Minneapolis, it was not included in the House education omnibus bill.
A related provision to expand a federal program that pays for universal school meals in high-poverty areas remains in play in talks between the House DFL and Senate GOP but that would require agreement and a special session of the Legislature – neither a sure thing.
Jordan said universal meals grew out of the issue of making lunch shaming illegal in Minnesota. Then the pandemic lunch program showed how it could work.
“Lunch shaming is terrible but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem that there are children going hungry in school and kids can’t learn when they’re hungry,” she said. “Why the federal program is important is it proved that we as policy makers can feed children, and it’s popular.”
The expense of the program caused it to be left out of the House education budget, Jordan said. The $183 million annual price tag is comparable to the Senate and House offers of reducing the special education cross subsidy, a perennial priority of school districts, that range from $195 million to $255 million.
“It’s also a new issue, one we’re still building momentum for,” Jordan said.
Walz said he is still interested in pursuing the funding in coming years.
“The amount of food that goes to waste, the capacity of this country to feed our students, the research that shows what happens when you do it and reducing that stigma … we just thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re not done with the issue.”
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who often takes the lead on children and family programs for the administration, called the expansion “smart, a great long-term investment.”
“We’ll be studying the effects of this pandemic for a long time. We have all suffered losses big and small. But one of the positives is that feeding kids is something that works,” Flanagan said. “There’s a normalization of this and I think that’s powerful.”
Universal school meals is partly an extension of recent efforts against lunch shaming – the stories from some lunchrooms where students were embarrassed for having lunch debt. A 2021 law change made it illegal for schools to stigmatize students over lunch debt, there remains concern among school nutritionists that eligible students don’t apply because of the social stigma that goes with a program that serves low-income families.
“They know lunch shaming is clearly illegal but kids aren’t going to eat a meal if they think it will put their parents into collection,” Gardner said. “It’s invisible how this plays out. Kids are skipping meals. They are hungry but they don’t want to put their parents into a bad position.”
Steuber of Mankato schools said districts still have to try to get parents to pay unpaid school bills.
“As a food service director, I did not get into the business to become a debt collector,” she said.
A small piece of universal lunch programs was in play when session ended in May and could be again if a special session is convened, something now further at risk with Walz’s statement Thursday that talks are at an impasse. House Democrats included $8.3 million for the next school year and $16.5 million for two school years in the next budget biennium to help expand use of the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, known as CEP.
Under CEP, districts can provide school meals for all students if the school or district has a high-enough percentage of students living in poverty – 40 percent being “directly certified” for free meals. There are about 300 schools and a handful of districts meet the eligibility measurements. But the program is optional and only half of eligible schools take advantage of the funding. Minnesota ranks 47th among states in taking part.
One reason for that, says Matt Shaver, the policy director for the advocacy group EdAllies, is that the federal reimbursement for the program doesn’t cover the cost. That is especially true if the student body has between 40 percent and 60 percent directly certified.
The money in the House DFL education offer would cover those unpaid costs, Shaver said.
Jordan’s House File 1985 would require schools to adopt the program and the money would cover administrative costs for those districts and provide some extra funding to fill gaps between costs and federal reimbursements. Unlike the universal school meals bill, this issue has bipartisan support with Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, sponsoring the companion Senate File 1902.
Expanding CEP could help solve a problem caused by the school lunch for all programs. That is, it doesn’t use a free-and-reduced-price lunch metric to determine which schools qualify. Currently, many special school funding programs – most unrelated to food – distribute money based on a school’s or school district’s percentage of students who are financially eligible for lunch assistance.
Gardner said CEP uses broader metrics such as data from the Census or the prevalence of eligibility for general food assistance such as the supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP as well as the recently added metric of medical assistance. Minnesota’s addition of Medicaid could help more schools qualify.