Feeding kids, as it turns out, is a good thing. Or at least that’s what the Agriculture Department decided this week, as it announced that its universal free school lunch program would be extended another year, through the summer of 2022. Rolled out at the start of the pandemic, the measure sought to alleviate some small amount of family hardship by guaranteeing every pupil who wanted a nutritious meal could get one at no cost, regardless of whether their family met income eligibility requirements, the traditional means by which free school lunches are distributed. (Remote school districts set up delivery systems or contact-free pickup locations to get the meals to families.)
For many school districts, this represented a sharp departure from a status quo that wasn’t working. Almost by accident, policymakers responded to the emergency by making this small but important corner of their world a better place. This change deserves to be a permanent part of the post-pandemic world.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, free or sharply reduced-price lunch was largely limited to children whose families not only fell below 185 percent of the federal poverty line but also filled out the cumbersome paperwork to claim the benefit. Many children fell through the cracks in the system. The latter paperwork hurdle, for example, has had an especially pernicious impact on Latino families, who likely worried that using public services could threaten their immigration status. And many of the children who either didn’t enroll or might have been deemed ineligible if they had done so, often needed the free lunch. These kids racked up tabs their families couldn’t always pay as a result.
Because the USDA reimburses schools for meals served to eligible children, the school districts themselves were forced to take the hit for what they couldn’t recoup from the federal program, without regard for how well funded (or not well funded) those school systems were. And so the problem of “school lunch debt”—a gobsmackingly ghoulish phrase that shouldn’t exist—grabbed headlines around the country, as schools attempted to shake families down for the unpaid meals. Often, they resorted to drastic measures like contracting collections agencies, rubber-stamping kids’ hands as a parental reminder, barring them from school events, or swapping out the hot meals their peers received with a crappier, colder, and cheaper alternative. As Jennifer Gaddis, author of Labor of Lunch argued, in a 2019 interview, enforcement of several such shaming methods was outrageously foisted onto low-wage cafeteria workers who were loath to do what was ordered by higher-ups but lacked the power to take a stand.
Despite a spate of high-profile charitable donations and GoFundMes that wiped certain schools’ lunch-debt slates clean (often only after the school systems perversely rejected the offers), the average district was still several thousand dollars in the red in the year before the pandemic hit. The USDA responded to the Covid-19 crisis by reimbursing school districts for every dispersed lunch instead of just those served to enrollees. This eliminated the basis of the “lunch debt” problem in one fell swoop, while offering parents and guardians relief in the process.
In other words, the coronavirus forced a natural experiment, extending a critical food benefit to all public school children—reducing stigma, stress, and strains on family resources in the process—and the results were laudable enough to keep it going. The next step should be to make it permanent.
Shifting USDA policy to reimburse schools for every meal, instead of just those of certain students (and hopefully at the increased rates instituted last year) immediately reduces administrative burdens on both families and schools. It also reduces the stigma placed on poor students by halting the most egregious practices for recouping debts, as well as by making the school lunch line function the same way for all children: with no one having to fork over a balance contingent on their family income or accepting a subpar lunch as a sanction for money owed.
Universal free lunch programs are also stress relievers for families, whose budgets may be stretched beyond the blinkered presumptions of strict eligibility requirements. It also saves time: It’s tough enough shuffling kids off to school in the morning without packing a lunch on top of it. As you might surmise, surveys show that these tasks tend to be shouldered by women; their plight, in the absence of robust welfare programs, was made so rivetingly plain during the pandemic that socialist feminist theorist Silvia Federici earned herself a profile in The New York Times. It makes practical sense to perform the entire school lunch process at scale, rather than individualizing it within private homes.
The fact that everyone needs a healthy lunch each day is a sufficiently defensible and straightforward reason why the public institutions that children spend all day attending should provide each student with one. Still, it’s important to note that such universal programs have a strong track record. Even before last year’s policy switch, certain districts, including those in New York City, Chicago, and Boston, provided universal free school lunches through the so-called “Community Eligibility Provision,” which allowed districts with over 40 percent qualifying students to apply for universal lunches. One subsequent study of the New York program found dramatic results—CEP raised participation in the program among both low-income students and their higher-income peers—and linked the free lunches to improved academic outcomes. This is not in itself a reason to tout the program—food is necessary whether or not it raises your grades!—but it does illustrate just how significantly healthful food can affect your ability to be your best self.
Perhaps most importantly, universality is the best way to protect free lunches and the families who rely on them. Programs that everyone is entitled to use and benefit from generate loyal constituencies that fiercely defend them, whereas means-tested variations are condemned to a perpetual chopping block: As long as eligibility thresholds exist, they’re at the constant risk of being pushed down by austerity fetishists. While elected officials have, over the years, succeeded in seriously denting welfare, Medicaid, and other food benefits—all of which have strict income caps—they haven’t inflicted as much damage on Social Security or Medicare, largely thanks to the politically fortifying effect that flows from the fact that everyone has a stake in those universal programs.
After a year of pandemic life, many more of us than ever before can attest to one simple and obvious thing: Preparing nutritious, cost-effective midday meals every day is hard. Public schools already have a relatively stable and effective infrastructure to accomplish this task for massive numbers of kids, and they serve up meals that Gaddis notes are far better than you may recall from cliché TV tropes. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the most efficient way to deliver the next best thing is to socialize and scale its production, quit worrying about who’s poor enough to deserve one, and make every student and their families happier and healthier in the process. What’s not to like?