Why Schools Are Starting To Worry About Their Free Lunch Programs

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government allowed the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to implement a new free lunch waiver program that provided free school lunches to every student across the country (via The Guardian). That program is now set to expire, assuming Congress fails to pass an extension, and may leave millions of students burdened by school lunch debt, and put school districts in a financial bind amid rising food costs (via Bloomberg Law).

The lunch waiver program allowed school districts to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all school children, and extended the USDA's Summer Food Service Program as well, according to The Guardian. These meals were important because it allowed every student to have access to a nutritious meal regardless of their family's income. Substantial research demonstrates the link between academic success and adequate nutrition for students as well (via The Guardian).

Bloomberg Law notes that there were already some federal assistance programs in place before the pandemic, but they required parents to complete the necessary paperwork, and some were unwilling to report their income, per The Guardian. This led to student's burdened by school lunch debts (via Bloomberg Law). According to School Nutrition, a pre-pandemic study showed that 75% of all school districts reported having unpaid school meal debt at the end of the year. The federal waiver program allowed all students to have the same benefits regardless of their income, which normalizes the free meals and removes any social stigma.

The waiver program is set to expire on June 30

The free lunch program is set to expire on June 30, leaving millions of students without free lunches (via NPR). Thirty million students currently use the program, while roughly 20 million were using federal assistance before the pandemic, per Bloomberg Law. The program's expiration began to loom over families when it wasn't included in the Biden administration's latest $1.5 trillion spending bill (via The Guardian). Politico and The Washington Post report that the program was not included at the insistence of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The expiration of this program will add further pressure on households that may be struggling to feed their families among rising food costs and inflation. It will also hurt school districts that will need to continue feeding their students who are unable to pay for their lunches (via Bloomberg Law). Districts will also be forced to return to pre-pandemic nutrition requirements. This may be difficult due to ongoing supply chain issues making it more challenging to acquire foods that fit their needs, per The Guardian.