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Millions of children could soon lose access to free school meals. Their families are quietly panicking

Ten million children could soon lose access to free breakfast and lunch this fall if Congress declines to extend a crucial school lunch program.

Millions of children could soon lose access to free school meals. Their families are quietly panicking
[Photos: kcline/Getty Images]

Hulu Kaopio-Camvel lives on the quiet, outer-Hawaiian island of Molokai, which is only 38 miles long and has a population of 7,000. All groceries come to the island via a barge. Since it’s the only option, residents often feel the shock of food prices, especially with inflation. And during the height of the pandemic and supply chain shortages, the boat sometimes didn’t even make it to shore. “Just to get a gallon of milk was crazy,” she says. What used to cost $8.99 has now surged to $12.99 with inflation. So, for her three school-age kids, the free breakfasts and lunches provided at school were a lifesaver.

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The national school breakfast and lunch programs, administered by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and which have stringent income-eligibility criteria, are typically reserved for families at or below 130% of the federal poverty line. But in March 2020, Congress waived those qualification tests to provide families financial relief during the pandemic, and that allowed every child in America to access free breakfast and lunch—an estimated 30 million kids in total. Lawmakers have extended the waiver twice since. But after opposition from Republican lawmakers, members removed a provision from the latest federal budget that would have extended the program through the forthcoming school year. (It wasn’t until June 25, five days before the program was set to expire, that President Biden was able to sign a brief summer extension into law after Congress finally agreed on it.)

If Congress lets the waiver expire at the end of the summer, an estimated 10 million children will lose free meals. For families of those children across the country who have benefitted from the relaxed income requirements, Congress’ failure to extend the free school meals programs will spell financial catastrophe—on top of adding undue stress to schedules, threatening to make meals less nutritious for children, and even reviving a stigma that threatens to socially divide children.

“Now is not the time to let them expire,” says Allison Johnson, campaign director for Parents Together Action, the policy wing of Parents Together, a national nonprofit supporting parents under the belief that all parents want their kids’ basic needs met.

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Economic insecurity among families only continues to grow. The eligibility limit, 130% of the federal poverty line, currently works out to $36,075 for a household of four in the contiguous states (and $41,496 in Hawaii, where Kaopio-Camvel lives), though some communities with a large portion of the population in poverty qualify for a provision that gives the whole district free meals. The meals expansion came at a time of widespread employment loss; by March 2021, 74.7 million Americans had lost some work, the majority in low-paying roles, and 24 million people had reported experiencing hunger. Inflation in the U.S. has now reached 8.6%, the highest rate since 1981. “Inflation is not going to be over by the end of the summer,” says Johnson. In the organization’s survey of 500 parents, 45% say that, without the waiver, they’re skipping meals so their kids can eat.

Antoinette Brown, a mother of four children who lives in Brentwood, California, tells Fast Company that, because of inflation, she has to pull from savings to pay for food, or put off buying groceries until the following week—especially in the summer when water and energy bills are higher. When getting the free meals, she says the family was able to increase the quality of food they were buying for home and could spend money on enrolling the kids in extracurricular activities; her girls did water polo last summer. “We’re cutting it closer with our weekly expenses than what I like to see,” says Brown, who owns a local swim school.

Cassie Williams is a mother of two in Farmington, Michigan, whose family would normally not be eligible for free school meals. Her family saved about $100 a month over the past year. “We’re not in a position where $100 is insignificant to us,” she says, and a sum of $1,200 a year is significant when paying off student loan debt. “I’ll be really, really saddened if the program goes away, as anticipated.”

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For Kaopio-Camvel, grocery prices in Hawaii are extreme. The close-knit community helps each other, and many try to be resourceful by growing their own vegetables, but some still face food insecurity. Due to a disability, she had to quit her job, so her children qualify for the program. She’s still concerned for others in her community who are also hard up; employment is hard to come by on the island. “Just because we qualify, what about the next kid?” she asks.

Reduced stress, increased nutrition

Worries go beyond the financial. For Williams, perhaps evenmore pressing are the mental and logistical factors of packing daily meals. “Being a parent is just a constant barrage of decisions to make,” she says, and the simple relief of one burden can make life easier. When packing cold lunches, she has to ensure that she has enough frozen icepacks, Tupperware containers, and plastic bags for each day, and that she’s not packing any of the many items that the school district restricts due to allergies. “We don’t make it real easy on parents in a lot of ways here in the U.S.,” she says, “and it was really nice to have access to that program.”

Brown agrees. It saved her time in the morning in not having to get up earlier to shop for or pack cold lunches. It also reduced the risk of anxiety her kids would feel if they forget their lunch boxes at home or at school—and, she says, there’s no arguing about what’s for lunch because they simply get what the school is serving that day. Also, for Williams, the school hot lunches allow kids to get their vegetables every day, just as the cold lunches incorporate dairy from cheese or yogurt—even if the school sometimes serves less-healthy items like hot dogs.

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During the height of the pandemic, Brown’s school district allowed parents to pick up a week’s worth of food from a socially distanced location, and store it; now, they have to make trips twice a day for both meals, which can be not only inconvenient, but also pricey, factoring in gas money.

In, Kaopio-Camvel’s case, the food they got from the island’s schools has been nutritious and well rounded with lots of vegetables and less reliance on meat. And nutritious food is proven key to learning. “Kids get cranky when they don’t have food,” she says, especially a good breakfast.

Fortuitous benefits for some families

For some families, the waiver has helped tackle some very specific needs. Natalie Sandoval of San Jacinto, California, is the mother of 8-year-old twins, both of whom have high-functioning autism with speech delay and sensory-processing disorder. This means they’re often timid about trying foods outside of their mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, or ramen soup preferences.

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But the free school meals have gotten them to try new foods because they see their peers eating and enjoying them. The twins have now tried pasta with Alfredo sauce, or with chicken, as well as broccoli and tamales. This means they’re agreeable to having those same foods at home.

An ancillary plus: Eating with their classmates, and trying new foods, has helped them feel more included at school. Previously, some of their friends may have gotten in line together because they qualified for lunches, and her children felt left out. On the first day they were in line for the universal meals, Sandoval says her daughter felt so proud she sent her mom a photo.

Before the universal lunch programs, children in lower-income families would often go hungry to avoid their embarrassment of having to line up for free lunches. Williams says she remembers that feeling when she was a child. So the universality of the meal programs has been democratizing for kids. “It doesn’t make any sense to add this stigma to children at that age, when everybody needs a meal to function,” she says.

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In the absence of the federal waiver, some states are taking action to provide meals for all their students. California and Maine are the first to have already passed universal free-lunch programs, which will begin this school year; Vermont has passed its own bill; and Minnesota and Massachusetts are among those with free-lunch bills in the works. In November’s elections, Colorado will have a proposal for free lunches on the ballot.

But many parents agree it should be a permanent nationwide program. “A lot of people, not just in Hawaii but across the nation, are going to suffer,” Kaopio-Camvel says. “Having that on our conscience that they won’t be fed, it’s kind of disturbing.”

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