Families scramble for aid as pandemic-era free meal program for students comes to an end

The new school year brings the end of universal free meals for many students. In 2020, Congress gave schools waivers to provide free breakfast and lunches regardless of income, but that expired at the start of September. Students and families still can apply for free meals if they meet income thresholds. Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute joined Lisa Desjardins to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The start of this new school year is bring an important change for many students in K-12 schools, the end of universal free meals.

    Back in 2020, Congress gave schools waivers to provide free breakfast and lunches, regardless of family income. That was after many schools went virtual, and both political parties agreed to prioritize reducing hunger and economic hardship. But those waivers came to an end at the start of September.

    Lisa Desjardins looks at what that means for students and their families.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Judy, at one point, about 30 million children were getting those free meals. But Republicans blocked another extension of the program this summer, saying the worst of the pandemic was over and so was the urgent need.

    Students and families still can apply for free meals, but they must meet income thresholds to be eligible. A family of four, for example, can only earn about $36,000 a year. And the limit is lower for smaller households.

    Here's what some parents and educators told us about these changes and their frustrations.

  • Cassie Williams, Michigan:

    My son, my oldest started school last year during the program, and it was wonderful, right? Like, I never had to worry about packing his lunch. I knew that, every day, he was going to get fed. And it was just a worry off my plate, right?

    So, with this universal free lunch program ending, of course we're incurring additional costs, because we have to buy specific types of grocery to pack — groceries to pack in lunches.

  • Cecilia Hebda, Pennsylvania:

    I have four children who go to school. And when they and their friends are all fed equally, the learning activity is more positive. I think there's probably less fighting.

    To me, it seems like it's ideal for each child to have the same opportunity for nourishment.

  • Maria Sanchez, Latino Educational Studies:

    I have students who I have worked with that really have to have difficult conversations in understanding that sometimes there just isn't enough, isn't enough resources, isn't enough food, isn't enough support, and that they're still expected to learn.

  • Cecilia Hebda:

    If they have classmates that are hungry, or classmates that are stressed about money, owing the cafeteria money, classmates that are worried because they may not own money now, but they will down the line, classmates worried, what are their parents going to have to cut in order to pay for their lunches at the school, things that were not worried about for the past two years.

  • Cassie Williams:

    The school district where we live did send out an announcement a few weeks ahead of the start of the school year that the program would be ending. They gave a link on how to — and instructions on how to load your child's meal card, as well as provided information about applying for free and reduced lunch.

    But my family doesn't meet the income requirements to qualify for free or reduced lunch. And, honestly, when you look at those numbers, you have to be in pretty serious financial dire straits to qualify for a free or reduced lunch.

  • Maria Sanchez:

    We have the ability to come together as a community and advocate for each other and help each other and empower each other to ask the hard questions. What are my rights? Should I have a right to have nutrition that is offered to me, so that I'm able to learn?

    What child under the age of 18 is empowered to ask those questions?

  • Cassie Williams:

    I hope that our elected officials can look and say, hey, this is a huge problem. Food insecurity is a big problem for families all across the country. Implementing free school lunch is an easy way that we can provide hungry kids with food to eat.

    To me, it seems like a no-brainer. And, honestly, while that program was in effect, it made me feel like it was a good use of my tax dollars.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So far, at least five states, California, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Nevada, have changed their policies to pick up the tab and make school meals free to all for this school year. At least 10 other states are considering changing their laws to make school meals free permanently, and some are expanding eligibility.

    But that still means most states will not have free school lunches or breakfasts this year.

    Elaine Waxman studies this for the nonpartisan Urban Institute and joins me now.

    Elaine, what do we know about this unprecedented federal program and what it meant for child hunger and what does its end mean now?

  • Elaine Waxman, Urban Institute:

    So, I think we have learned some important lessons from the pandemic, which is that school meals has really been a critical portion of what families rely on to feed their kids.

    And that became very clear during the last couple of years. We also know from research that there are a number of benefits for everyone in the school, whether or not they're lower income. Schools that have universal school meals tend to have higher test scores, fewer disciplinary problems, less bullying, less stigma.

    So, from an evidence base, we know it's a good investment as well. Unfortunately, the pandemic may be abating somewhat, but what has not changed, and, in fact, has accelerated is the cost of food. So, food price inflation is double digit. That's not something that we're used to.

    And that's creating a lot of pressure on family food budgets, just at the time that these waivers are being rolled back.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, critics say that this $11 billion this would have cost was simply too much for the federal system to take on. And then some Republicans said that this would encourage dependence on government.

    But can you talk a little bit more about the idea that this actually was helpful in the school environment? What exactly do we know from research that having all kids with nutritional supplements, as we heard one parent talk about, on the same level, what is that doing educationally?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Well, we have to think about it as an investment in education, because we can see that universal school meals increases test scores, improves the overall school environment.

    So, when we talk about it as a cost, I think we're using the wrong language. It's an investment in kids. And we know that food insecurity is associated with a host of negative outcomes for children and their families, including learning delays, depression in adolescents, suicidal ideation.

    So these are things that we're investing in to try to improve outcomes, rather than using the language of cost.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Some parents have had very different experiences across the country. Some didn't know that this program was ending.

    And now it seems like some may be kind of left outside because they haven't known to reapply. Can you talk about sort of what's going on in school districts and what this means for parents? What's the situation there?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Sure, well, there are a few things to be concerned about.

    First of all, schools still have a lot on their plates, so to speak. There's a lot of pressure from food supply chains. So, launching a program where you have to process applications again in the midst of all that is very challenging. We know that a lot of the children who are just over the cut off for free and reduced price lunches are actually children of color.

    So it's going to fall more inequitably on those families. And we worry about that, because, typically, food insecurity rates in those households are about twice what they are for white households. Parents may or may not realize that they have the ability to apply, but they also may be just over that cut off. And so that's something that they have got to build back into their budget just at a time when grocery bills are very high.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As you mentioned, this comes during the year when we're seeing, for modern times, a record inflation food prices specifically, so much stress there.

    Can you talk about where we are with food insecurity and hunger overall? And what does the kind of loss of this program mean in terms of our country and dealing with hunger?

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Yes, that's a great question.

    We just had some new data from USDA that suggested that, in 2021, food insecurity for households with children actually fell to an all-time low in the period we have been measuring it. But we at the Urban Institute conducted a new survey earlier this summer and found that households with children have food insecurity rates that are creeping back towards what they were at the beginning of the pandemic.

    And I think that reflects two things. It reflects the higher cost of food, but it also reflects fewer supports, so the loss of universal school meals, the rollback of the monthly child tax credit payments, and other resources that were available in 2021, like enhanced unemployment benefits, that are not available for families anymore.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute, something we're going to be paying close attention to in coming months.

    We really appreciate your time.

  • Elaine Waxman:

    Thanks for having me.

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