In 2019, Rebecca Wood and her then-six-year-old daughter, Charlie, were struggling with school lunch debt. Charlie didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch “because on paper, it looked like we had a good income,” explains Wood, who was working in health care policy at the time. But because Charlie was born prematurely at twenty-six weeks, she needed costly treatments and therapies, the bills for which piled on top of Wood’s exorbitant asthma medication co-pays and her sky-high Boston-area rent. The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) narrow meal eligibility criteria didn’t account for any of this.
“It seemed like I’d get a paycheck and it was out the door before I could even think about how to spend it,” Wood told Jacobin. “Charlie would come home from school and say, ‘Mom, you need to give money to the cafeteria again.’” But each time Wood added a small, scraped-together sum to Charlie’s nutrition account, a $2.50 transaction fee swallowed up the cost of an entire meal.
Wood did some research and discovered that Charlie’s district in Revere, Massachusetts, could qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which enables schools with high concentrations of student poverty to make meals universally free. When she asked the superintendent about it, she was met with resistance. But she persevered — talking with other moms, the teachers union, Massachusetts lawmakers, “basically anyone who would listen to me” — and eventually won universal meals for Revere students. For her and Charlie, it was “a game changer”:
Initially I just wanted the lunch debt to go away, but I noticed other things. I had extra money, so I didn’t have to leave medicines at the pharmacy counter as often. Or if the heating bill was just a little bit more than expected, it didn’t completely blow my budget out of the water. I had a little cushioning.
Across the United States a shockingly high number of families suffer from food insecurity, which the USDA defines as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.” This reality has devastating consequences for child and adolescent development, forcing caregivers to choose between food and other essential expenses like housing or health care. More than one-fifth of food-insecure children are, like Charlie, ineligible for free school meals. And because accessing free school food can be a complicated matter — requiring parents to submit detailed paperwork, and causing “free lunch kids” to feel the shame of poverty — many others miss out despite being eligible.
But in 2020 the USDA waived its means-testing requirements, enabling schools to serve free, federally reimbursable meals to all students, no applications needed. These pandemic waivers were allowed to expire, but the temporary recognition of children’s right to lunch has left school food activists like Wood more determined than ever to make universal meals a permanent reality. As Crystal FitzSimons, director of school-based programs at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) told Jacobin: “There is a feeling that we can’t go back.”
Looming Lunch Debt
Like other school cafeteria workers, Mary Dotsey of Vero Beach, Florida, valued the ability to make nutritious meals available to all students. “If they’re not eating properly,” she explains, “they’re not learning right.”
Proving Dotsey’s point, when schools adopt universal meals through Community Eligibility or another program, we see improvements in students’ academic performance, behavior, attendance, and psychosocial functioning. Above all, the implementation of universal meals causes meal participation to shoot up, demonstrating that the need far exceeds the number of kids who are able to get certified. This is not at all surprising when you consider that, for example, a two-parent, one-child household must currently make less than $32,318 to qualify for free meals.
Now that the pandemic flexibility is over, Dotsey’s district is once again dividing children into stigmatizing categories of free, reduced-price, and “paid” lunch. When she enters the lunch numbers of her middle schoolers, Dotsey can see who owes money. She turns a blind eye wherever possible, but technically she and her colleagues are required to swap out these children’s hot entrées for cold sandwiches, sometimes just cheese on a hamburger bun. “And I can tell you right now,” Dotsey adds grimly, “the kids aren’t taking it. They’re walking away without anything.”
Not only is the cold replacement lunch less appealing; it’s also a red badge of economic hardship that older kids will do anything to avoid. FRAC’s FitzSimons told Jacobin that where free meals aren’t universal, participation rates drop off among free meal–eligible middle and high school students — suggesting that as children approach adolescence, they feel the painful “welfare” stigma associated with claiming a means-tested benefit.
“Lunch shaming” tactics like cold sandwiches came under fire a few years ago, and many states have worked to eliminate them. But the reality is, school nutrition programs like Dotsey’s are in a bind. If they let kids eat a hot lunch without paying for it — unquestionably the right thing to do — meal charges accrue, and they have to get paid somehow. “That creates a tremendous amount of pressure within the district to try to figure out how to deal with that debt,” explains FitzSimons, who told Jacobin that because the money cannot be pulled from school nutrition accounts, it ends up draining resources from education. In a new report from the School Nutrition Association (SNA), over 96 percent of districts that aren’t offering universal meals indicated that the loss of the federal waivers has caused a spike in unpaid meal fees, with a combined burden of over $19 million.
“This school year has been incredibly tumultuous for districts,” FitzSimons notes, because they once again have to devote considerable resources to chasing down and processing meal applications from parents who may not have realized they’d ever need to apply for school food. This tumult is hitting cash-strapped nutrition departments already overwhelmed by staffing shortages, ballooning food prices, and the dire challenges facing public education.
Given the many problems that come with nonuniversal meals, you might wonder why high-poverty districts like Dotsey’s don’t simply adopt the CEP. The main reason is that the CEP involves a complicated funding formula with a tiered reimbursement rate that isn’t financially viable for all qualifying schools and districts. Nevertheless, FitzSimons told Jacobin that FRAC’s research is showing “a big increase” in CEP adoption this year, likely because schools don’t want to return to a model that forces them to deny children food.
In the SNA report, districts that offer universal meals logged a significant uptick in meal participation, as inflation makes it much harder for parents to keep pantries stocked. Conversely, nonuniversal programs indicated a 23 percent reduction in participation, with children like Dotsey’s middle schoolers skipping meals that could be a primary source of their daily calories. Quite simply, as FitzSimons observes, “if the program’s structured not to feed all kids, then not all kids will get fed.”
“Why Wouldn’t You Feed Them?”
School nutrition programs — the nation’s second-largest food safety net — serve billions of balanced breakfasts, lunches, and snacks each year. By eliminating the need to pack food, they save busy parents precious time — and when they’re free, money. In Massachusetts, free school meals save parents like Wood a yearly average of $1,000 per child, adding breathing room to ultra-tight household budgets. Most importantly, school meals improve public health by providing kids with vital nutrients they’re often not getting elsewhere.
Restricting access to this program is undeniably illogical. After all, students aren’t expected to submit applications and furnish fees in exchange for math and English instruction, which are not nearly as essential as nutrition. “If kids are legally required to be in school for seven hours a day,” Wood asks, “why wouldn’t you feed them? It seems odd to me.” She’s not alone: in an era of hyperpolarization when we’re told parents can’t agree on anything, about three-quarters agree that universal school meals are a good policy. In fact, when a 2022 Colorado ballot measure asked voters if they’d like to fund universal school meals by taxing the rich, a strong majority were in favor.
Universalization could improve conditions for frontline nutrition staff like Dotsey, who puts her “heart and soul” into nurturing students, but can’t provide for her own daughters without working long hours at a second job. Perpetually underfunded, school meal programs tend to operate by squeezing a punishing workload out of frequently part-time employees earning poverty wages. Because USDA reimbursements are these programs’ primary revenue source, if 100 percent of meals were reimbursable, they’d be better positioned to transform the exhausting, precarious labor of school food service into life-sustaining jobs.
The increased participation that follows universal meals would allow nutrition departments to more effectively tap into economies-of-scale, generating further savings. With added revenue, they could stop hawking unhealthy extras, like potato chips, and pay for the equipment and culinary training needed to wean off the industrially produced “heat-and-serve” products that degrade both job and meal quality. Looking to extract profit from nonprofit programs, the companies that make these highly-processed foods treat school meals as opportunities to groom future customers, jeopardizing students’ long-term eating habits. The alternative — “scratch” cooking with locally sourced ingredients — is not only more wholesome and environmentally sound, but it also makes nutrition programs resilient against the supply-chain bottlenecks that have hamstrung school meal provision in recent years.
Without all the administrative checkpoints mandated by our current system, students could move through lunch lines faster and have time to savor their food, rather than gulping it down or tossing it out to avoid being late to class. And when cafeteria workers don’t have to double as debt collectors, they can direct their energy toward making a wide variety of nutritious foods appetizing.
In Massachusetts, one of a handful of states that funded a temporary continuation of universal meals, Wood notices that Charlie’s school is “able to try all of these healthy food alternatives and focus on that rather than whether they’ll have enough each month.” She explains: “At home, I could probably never introduce her to chickpeas. But since it was something she was doing with her friends, she tried it and she liked it.”
A World of Possibility
The fight for school meals traces its roots all the way back to maternalist Progressive Era efforts to shield children and workers from the ravages of unregulated capitalism. In her book The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, Jennifer Gaddis describes how early school-lunch crusaders envisioned meal programs that would be integral to schools’ educational missions, immersing students in hands-on learning about nutrition, gardening, food preparation, and home economics. Staffed by duly compensated professionals, these programs would collectivize and elevate care work, making it possible for mothers of all economic classes to efficiently nourish their young.
When Congress passed the 1946 National School Lunch Act, it instead solidified nutrition departments as financially starved appendages to general education programs. Because of the infrastructural inequity (e.g. the lack of cafeterias in urban schools serving marginalized kids) and underfunding that plagued the National School Lunch Program in its earliest decades, many of the United States’ poorest students either didn’t benefit from it, or faced indignities like being made to scrub dishes in exchange for food.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a diverse coalition of food justice advocates demanded better, eventually seeing gains like the School Breakfast Program (arguably the federal government’s attempt to short-circuit the growing political power of the Black Panther Party). These “right-to-lunch” activists called for universal school meals because they recognized that means-testing would discourage participation by privileged families repelled by the whiff of welfare, making it impossible for programs to reach robust levels of popularity and public investment. Just as importantly, they understood that economic segregation in the lunchroom would, in Gaddis’s words, “weaken the democratic ethos of public schools.” Some even dared to ask why school cafeterias should stop at feeding children, when families and entire populations are afflicted by preventable hunger.
Despite the advice of Nixon-commissioned experts, Congress refused to sign off on lunch universalism. The decades that followed saw a cheapening of both school food and school cafeteria jobs, leading us to the funding and staffing crises that beset nutrition departments today. But during the pandemic, the dream of the “right-to-lunch” movement was temporarily made real, with federal waivers allowing schools to feed all of their students, and in some cases, whole communities. Elizabeth Marchetta, executive director of Baltimore’s K-12 nutrition services, says her program used a combination of federal funding and private aid to turn schools into pandemic “food distribution hubs,” making meals available to both kids and adults.
Because USDA-backed school nutrition programs are the largest “restaurant” chain around, they have extraordinary potential not only as emergency-response infrastructure, but also to alter the landscapes of food procurement and preparation in ways that protect farmers, food chain workers, and the ecological systems on which all earthly life depends. We just need to think more expansively.
Above all, school meals have the power to bring children and the constituencies who care about them to a common table where we’re united across our differences. “Eating together is so important community-wise, you know? You build relationships,” says Wood, who is currently fighting to push a universal school meals bill through the Massachusetts State House — an effort that parallels other campaigns across the United States.
Wood says now that Charlie and her schoolmates all have access, “they’re not even called ‘free meals’ anymore. It’s just lunch. We’re just having lunch.”