COVID Ushered in Enthusiasm for Universal School Meals. Will They Get Federal Support in the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization?

by Lela Nargi


If there’s one thing school nutrition directors are looking forward to this upcoming school year it’s returning to the normalcy of feeding kids back in the familiar setting of the cafeteria. “These professionals worked so hard to overcome so many different challenges when schools closed abruptly at the start of the pandemic, and they can’t wait to interact with students and families in a different way than loading food and groceries in the trunk of a car,” says Laura Hatch, co-vice president of impact for school food nonprofit FoodCorps. “They did heroic work, but they’re exhausted.”

Little wonder. In some cases in a matter of 24 hours, school nutrition directors pivoted everything about their operations in March 2020, moving from in-person meals to grab-and-go bags that could be picked up curbside, distributed to neighborhoods via school bus routes, or delivered directly to families. They did get a lot of legislative help: Thanks to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, dozens of waivers were able to be issued by the USDA. These allowed schools to eschew things like handing meals over to children only (as opposed to parents and caregivers) and the usual congregate feeding mandates; states could also provide pandemic EBT cards to fill in grocery gaps beyond the reach of school-provided breakfasts and lunches.

But figuring out how best to respond to a need that only grew as weeks went on was hardly a simple task, and the difficulties were myriad and varied, says Hatch. Especially in early pandemic days, many school nutrition staff worked without PPE or clear understanding of the risks of the coronavirus; regulations, pick-up sites and feeding models were constantly changing in many districts; getting the word out to families about how to access food could be an uphill battle; and food usually procured from large-scale vendors hit all manner of supply chain snafus, according to Janna Parker, policy associate with the National Farm to School Network. Many schools also lost revenue because they weren’t receiving reimbursements from the USDA for as many school meals as usual, and the a la carte sales to children who supplement their lunches with snacks and drinks, that help ensure a school nutrition program’s financial stability, disappeared entirely.

Almost 30 million students ate school lunches pre-pandemic, and it’s extremely likely that some of them fell through the cracks in the last year-and-a-half, says Diana Pratt-Heavner, media relations director for the School Nutrition Association (SNS)— either because their families didn’t know they were eligible or didn’t know how or where to access meals; there were also families who were newly food-insecure due to unemployment, who were unfamiliar with the very the concept of meals provided by schools and did not seek them out. When all was said and done, however, “School meal program staff continued to show up at work and take on the Herculean task of making sure students were nourished and ready to learn,” Pratt-Heavner says.

What the Pandemic Showed Us About Universal School Meals

Pandemic feeding solutions also showed wiggle room in the business-as-usual and often arduous school meals model. Arguably one of the most important of the USDA waivers — this one will be extended through school year 2021-’22 — was the one that allowed schools nationwide to distribute breakfasts and lunches for free, without first checking a child’s eligibility, which is normally based on a family’s federal poverty level. Basically, this means that all public schools have been able to offer what’s known as Universal School Meals (UMS). Many organizations have long lobbied for UMS; SNS has lately been pushing for its federal adoption when the long-overdue Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization — the process by which Congress updates any laws having to do with kid-related food programs — finally happens, hopefully this year. The framework for it would come from the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 introduced by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, and it would make breakfast, lunch, and a snack free for all school kids, regardless of family income.

What USM means, explains Pratt-Heavner, is that “every child can receive breakfast and lunch without having to fill out an application, which reduces the burden on schools to collect and process these applications; and on families that are uncomfortable with providing their personal information” or for whom other barriers to applying exist. “When meals are free for all, there’s no shame or stigma and every kid can enter the cafeteria on the same footing and be able to eat together. We think the pandemic made a big case for making universal school meals part of the educational day, just like transportation to school and textbooks in the classroom.” She says free meals during the pandemic have increased equity among students “at a time when the whole country is so focused on breaking racial barriers.” Another enormous benefit of USM: it would eliminate once and for all the phenomenon of school lunch debt, which in some districts has meant kids could be denied meals because of outstanding balances.

New York City has provided USM since 2017. And this past June, California, followed quickly by Maine, became the first and second states to adopt the model, with California making $650 million a year for it available and Maine allocating $10 million a year, through their budget bills, to serve 600,000 and an estimated 160,000 students respectively. These will go into effect once the USDA waivers expire for schoolyear 2022-’23; advocates hope that federal legislation will pass under the CNR and make state-by-state UMS adoption unnecessary. SNS is celebrating these legislative victories, especially, points out Pratt-Heavner, since there’s strong evidence from a 15-year study out of Tufts University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai that meals consumed at schools have the highest diet quality when compared to those from grocery stores and restaurants.

Not everyone thinks federal USM would just be a blanket win. As Bettina Elias Siegal writes in The Lunch Tray, “for many decades, free and reduced-price meal applications have also served as a proxy for student poverty in determining Title I funding, state education funding, teacher loan forgiveness, and even providing free internet to low-income kids.” Lots of districts seem not to realize they can determine Title I funding in other ways; this means that some states have been loathe to pass USM because they fear losing essential monies. Additionally, both California and Maine are still requiring applications, at least for the time being. This is because they need to file them in order to get reimbursed by the USDA for meals that are served to low-income kids (state monies pay for the rest).

Beyond UMS, Hatch says there were other important lessons learned from Covid that she hopes will be carried forward: breakfast in the classroom, which was “not welcome before and now teachers and principals see the benefit of keeping kids together and having a moment to connect in the classroom,” she says. And the ability to eat in the fresh air. “A lot of districts are seeing gardens as amazing places for students to learn, they’re safer [in a pandemic] because they’re outside, and they support students in social-emotional learning,” says Hatch. This year more than ever, with some students returning to school for the first time in well over a year, that last component “will be even more important,” Hatch says.

Top photo by Lance Cheung/UDSA.

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