Healthy School Meals for All

Students wait in a school cafeteria lunch line.

School meals are a lifeline for millions of children, helping to prevent hunger and ensuring families have enough to eat, especially among those living furthest from economic opportunity.

The Issue

When the pandemic hit—and hunger and food insecurity spiked—Congress enacted legislation giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to allow schools to serve meals to all students at no charge (also known as universal school meals).

These emergency measures have helped alleviate food insecurity and resource challenges for families and schools, but they are set to expire on June 30, 2022. Unless Congress acts quickly to extend the child nutrition waivers that allow schools to offer meals at no charge, millions of kids will lose access to a critical source of nutrition.

Key Findings

  • Food security for all families increases when school meals are provided at no cost to all students.

  • Providing the same meals to all students at no cost increases participation in school meals programs and helps children eat healthier, especially when the meals meet specific nutrition standards.   

  • Universal school meals, especially universal lunches, are linked with improvements in students’ academic performance, including test scores and readiness to learn.

  • Schools that serve a high percentage of students from low-income households may benefit financially when meals are offered to all students at no charge due to increased revenues from federal reimbursements for meals.

Conclusion

The emergency measures implemented in response to the pandemic provide a long-term roadmap for modernizing and improving school meal programs. Ensuring every child has access to free and healthy school meals—not only during public health emergencies, but every day—will help end child hunger and build a healthier nation for generations to come.