In today’s public school environment, prioritizing school meal access is more important than ever. To create the conditions for children, teachers, and families to succeed, all students must be well nourished at school. However, a variety of barriers to participation currently lead to student hunger, meal debt for families, and costly administrative burdens for schools. Across the United States, there are 9.3 million children currently experiencing food insecurity.1 The effects of hunger on health, well-being, and learning can follow children for the rest of their lives and make them less competitive in the global workforce.2 Offering no-cost meals to all students is an increasingly popular solution across the states, with benefits for students, families, and school districts.
Across the United States, there are 9.3 million children currently experiencing food insecurity
The federal government currently has five primary programs designed to feed school-age children: the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Seamless Summer Option, and the Summer Food Service Program.3 Each program has distinct meal costs, eligibility requirements, and reimbursement processes for the meals served. While all public schools have the option to participate in each of these federal meal programs, they may choose to opt out of any of them.
The NSLP and the SBP offer free meals for students at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($36,075 for a family of four) and reduced-price meals costing $0.40 for students at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($51,338 per year for a family of four).4 However, these eligibility requirements fail to account for families’ complex socioeconomic realities, such as debt burdens, health and medication costs, and the high cost of living in many urban areas. There are 1.54 million students across the United States whose families must pay for full-price meals that they cannot afford, resulting in an average yearly meal debt of $170.13 per child.5
Number of students across the country whose families must pay for full-priced meals they cannot afford
Average yearly meal debt per child in the United States
During the first two full school years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education issued waivers that empowered schools to serve free, fully reimbursed meals to all students. However, these waivers expired at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, leaving schools with greater administrative and financial difficulties than ever before in serving healthy and affordable meals to students who need them.6
Challenges in paid school meal programs
School meal applications
Some students are directly certified for free and reduced-price school meals if their household participates in other means-tested federal programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, and—in some states—Medicaid.7 Many other families must submit applications to prove their eligibility. One study showed that, on average, for every 10 students who are directly certified for free and reduced-price meals, six must be certified through school meal applications.8 Families may face additional barriers to applying, such as limited English proficiency or trouble with providing a record of their income. Many families are unaware that they need to complete an application—especially after two years when schools offered meals to all students at no cost—and others may be hesitant to provide the sensitive information that applications require, particularly undocumented or mixed-status families.
Furthermore, schools do not have the staffing capacity to individually address parent needs and ensure every student successfully applies for free or reduced meals. A recent study showed that more than 90 percent of districts surveyed by the School Nutrition Association reported staffing shortages as either a “significant” or “moderate challenge.”9
School meal debt
Unpaid meal debt exists for children across the family income spectrum, carrying an additional administrative burden for both schools and parents, and often stigmatizing the child with a negative balance in the lunch line. Often, children with meal debt experience stigma and “lunch shaming”—actions that schools take to shame students into paying their bills—such as throwing away hot meals; withholding grades; and singling out students with easily identifiable tickets, stamps, or other notices.10 Although increasing numbers of states are passing legislation to prevent lunch shaming, it remains a problem in schools across the country and can heighten the stigma associated with school meal participation.
Districts across the country are reporting higher-than-average meal debt following the expiration of pandemic-era waivers. According to a survey from the School Nutrition Association, 97.9 percent of schools not offering free meals to all students reported having unpaid meal debt, ranging from as low as $15 in a smaller school district to as high as $1.7 million in a much larger district.11
There are multiple causes of rising meal debt. Many parents lack the financial means to pay for school meals that are no longer free, and they may not know they are required to fill out an application for free and reduced-price meals. This is especially the case for parents of only kindergarten or first grade students, who joined the school system during the pandemic and have never had to pay for school meals. Additionally, slight wage increases due to inflation are pushing families out of the necessary income categories for free and reduced-price meal eligibility, even though these wages are not keeping up with the soaring cost of living across the country.12 Even families who qualify for reduced-price lunches must pay between $200 and $300 per month if they have three or more children.
These administrative and financial issues are further complicated by challenges resulting from the pandemic. Schools and families alike are facing inflation and rising food costs, and districts continue to experience staffing shortages that exacerbate the administrative burden of processing school meal applications and verifying student eligibility.13 When the U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers expired, ending a two-year suspension of school meal applications, many families were unaware of or unprepared for the return to pre-pandemic processes and the need to reenroll. Families with young children who joined the K-12 system during the pandemic were especially unprepared.
Benefits of no-cost school meals for all
Studies have shown that students at schools currently offering free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) experience a multitude of benefits. Free school meals increase attendance rates,14 reduce student suspensions,15 positively affect student health,16 and improve test scores among marginalized student groups.17 No-cost meals reduce the stigma associated with students’ school breakfast and lunch participation and foster a stronger sense of community among students, ultimately promoting a more positive and welcoming school climate where all students have access to the nutrition they need to succeed.
The benefits of no-cost meals are not limited to students alone. Families with access to free school meals through CEP may see declines in their monthly grocery spending by as much as 19 percent, and CEP exposure is associated with a decline of nearly 5 percent in households experiencing food insecurity.18 States currently offering no-cost meals—such as Massachusetts—report thriving partnerships with local farms, resulting in healthier food options and stronger local economies.19 Minnesota’s recent efforts to provide free meals for all students will help families save an estimated $80 per student per month on lunches alone.20
Offering free meals for all students can also help schools reduce the administrative burdens associated with collecting free and reduced-price applications, tracking student meal debt, and notifying families of account balances. Additionally, eliminating unpaid meal debt would free up critical dollars in other areas of school budgets that would have been needed to compensate for shortfalls in their meal programs.
States funding no-cost meals
Recognizing the multitude of benefits for students, families, and schools, five states—California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico—have acted to independently serve free school meals for all students. In the absence of continued federal investment, these strategies are essential for ensuring that students are well fed and ready to learn during the school day.
California was the first state to establish a statewide free meals program for K-12 students, starting in the 2022-23 school year.21 As long as school districts follow federal guidelines for serving meals, California’s Department of Education reimburses them for all meal expenses that federal reimbursements do not cover, namely the costs of reduced-price and paid meals. Additionally, the state provided $150 million in the preceding school year for staff training and kitchen infrastructure upgrades to support implementation. A teacher’s aide and mother of two elementary school students in Rancho Cordova reported that “[having] two meals per day at school makes a huge difference for me,” saving her family about $150 per week in grocery costs.22
Maine quickly became the second state to pass no-cost school meals legislation starting in the 2022-23 academic year.23 The state allocated nearly $27 million to fully fund meal costs not covered by federal reimbursements for all K-12 public schools in the state. The Windham Raymond School District has reported serving around 45 percent more meals than it did before the pandemic. The district’s nutrition director marveled at the volume of food being served, claiming, “We’re always running out, not being able to fully anticipate how many meals we’re going to serve. Because we’ve never been able to offer meals for free, to our entire student body, all at once.”24
We're always running out, not being able to fully anticipate how many meals we're going to serve. Because we've never been able to offer meals for free, to our entire student body, all at once.
In the ballot initiative known as Proposition FF, more than 55 percent of Colorado voters supported SB 22-087, a bill to provide school districts with the funds necessary to offer free meals for K-12 public school students.25 The program will be implemented starting in the 2023-24 school year. A school food service worker with the Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association lauded the initiative’s success, declaring that “once this is implemented in our cafeterias, we can provide every kid in Colorado with a healthy meal made with local, Colorado-grown products. With this program in place, we’ll also show that we care about fair wages and good training for school staff—a key piece of this measure.”26
A school food service worker with the Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association lauded the initiative’s success, declaring that “once this is implemented in our cafeterias, we can provide every kid in Colorado with a healthy meal made with local, Colorado-grown products. With this program in place, we’ll also show that we care about fair wages and good training for school staff—a key piece of this measure.”
Minnesota recently signed free school meals into law starting in the 2023-24 school year.27 The state will take the same approach for implementing the program, using state funds to cover the remaining costs after federal reimbursements have been awarded. In a state House Education Policy Committee hearing on the bill, a Minneapolis student testified, “I feel like something that’s a necessity to a human should be free for us … especially kids, because our brains are still growing.” He implored the committee that “if this bill passed, it would really be a stress off of my parents and me, with me having to put my own money into my account and me having to ask other family members for some money to eat … it’s almost embarrassing at times, and I don’t think a kid should ever have to feel like that.”28
Shortly after Minnesota, New Mexico became the fifth state to sign legislation making free school meals permanently available for all elementary and secondary public school students, starting in the 2023-24 school year.29 New Mexico’s legislation establishes the Healthy Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act and includes an additional $20 million to fund school kitchen infrastructure improvements and promote made-from-scratch meals. Kendall Chavez, the governor’s food and hunger coordinator, reported that the bill will be critical for “[s]upporting [New Mexico’s] local farmers, ranchers and food businesses and elevating school food as something that’s as important as the books that our kids are reading while they’re in school.”30
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont have passed temporary universal school meals legislation for the 2022-23 academic year, a state-based extension of the federal COVID-19 waivers that expired just before the start of the school year.31 Nevada has passed legislation extending universal school meals through the 2023-24 school year.32 As Congress continues to delay child nutrition reauthorization and the Biden administration’s proposed expansion of CEP, state-level action to shoulder the burden of offering no-cost meals to students will help to fill a critical need for students across the income spectrum.
The paid school meal system presents families and school administrators with challenges that prevent students who are otherwise qualified for free or reduced-price meals from accessing benefits. Rising food costs, school staffing shortages, and skyrocketing meal debt significantly impede both student access to food and administrators’ ability to balance school budgets. The myriad problems embedded in the paid school meal system cannot be solved through a patchwork of piecemeal amendments, temporary waivers, and competitive grant funding. Likewise, proposals to expand CEP to an additional 9 million children by 2032 are not enough to reach every student experiencing food insecurity in the United States, and some of the hardest-hit families will inevitably fall through the cracks.33
In the absence of federal action, states are taking steps to implement no-cost meal programs, with demonstrable benefits for students, families, and school staff. These examples show that free meals alleviate the administrative burdens and financial hardship imposed by the current system, and they should inspire other states and communities to adopt similar measures. Ultimately, Congress should implement a fully funded free school meal program nationwide through a future child nutrition reauthorization. Only a program that guarantees free school meals nationwide, if implemented equitably and effectively, will provide all children who are food insecure with access to nutritious school meals, as well as dismantle the full array of logistical hurdles associated with student meal certification. In the meantime, students and schools will be forced to look to state governments for relief.
The authors would like to thank Alexis Bylander and Crystal FitzSimons from the Food Research and Action Center and Nadia Davis from the School Nutrition Association for their input and guidance. They would also like to thank Suzanne Harms, former intern at the Center for American Progress, and Madeline Shepherd and Emma Lofgren from the Government Affairs team at the Center for their valuable contributions to this brief.