Quick Take: The Case for Free School Meals

Health eating researchers say free meals provided during the pandemic benefitted all school children and should stay.

By Alicia Banks

Published August 29, 2023 under Commentary

For millions of children returning to U.S. schools this week, there’s no longer such a thing as a free lunch.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress made meals free for public and nonprofit private schools participating in the National School Lunch Program. But with that provision now expired, many states have gone back to pre-pandemic policies that allow free or reduced-price meals for students from families who qualify as low-income or receive certain food assistance from the government.

Lindsey Miller, a senior research analyst for Healthy Eating Research (HER) at Duke Global Health Institute, says the free-lunch guarantee should continue. In this Quick Take video, she says the pandemic-era measure allowed all K-12 students to keep their minds on academics, and not their next meal.

“You may not act or perform your best when you’re hungry,” she says. “Children spend most of their time in school, and they’re relying on the foods provided [there] for what they eat in a day.”

In 2022, HER reported that expanding free school meals improved attendance and diet, while preventing the shame that may be felt by students who are singled out for lunch benefits.

In the U.S., 30 million students receive reduced or free school lunches, and nine million children suffer from food insecurity, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Currently, eight states provide free school meals to all students, ABC News reports. But Megan Lott, deputy director of HER, says as many as 20 other states are considering funding free lunches for all.

“Many studies have shown children have difficulty focusing when they’re hungry,” Lott says. Subsidizing free meals not only improves kids’ health, but takes budget pressure off both families and schools.

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