School meals help prevent hunger and provide nutrients that kids need to learn and thrive. These meals are essential to tens of millions of children and families, especially those living furthest from economic opportunity.
Since early 2020, all students have been eligible for free breakfast and lunch at school because of child nutrition waivers provided in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Offering healthy school meals to all students for free helps reduce food insecurity, improve children’s diets, and boost their academic performance. But this policy will change starting in the 2022-23 school year and families will once again have to apply for free or reduced-price meals. This means many children in need will miss out and some will be forced again to stand in a different line or receive a different meal from their peers, which creates stigma and shame.
Measures that have helped schools serve kids and families in need during the pandemic provide a roadmap for improving school meal programs and addressing systemic inequities in our nation’s nutrition policy. Ensuring that all students have access to healthy school meals at no cost is a critical strategy for helping children grow up healthy, lifting families out of poverty and advancing health equity.