In the 2021-22 school year, the number of children eating school breakfast and lunch increased by 1.6 million and 10.1 million respectively when compared to the prior school year, according to a report released Thursday by the Food Research and Action Center. That's an 11.2% increase in children receiving breakfast and a 51% increase in children receiving lunch on an average day during the school year that marked the return to in-person learning for nearly all students, and at a time when schools were still offering universal meals.
This increase "shows just what is possible when meals are available to all students at no cost, and students are back in school," the FRAC report’s authors wrote. The report attributes the increase not only to the pandemic-era universal meal waivers, but also to investments combating supply chain issues and costs, and expanded meal distribution flexibilities in the event of school closures or student quarantines.
Although school meal waivers expired in June 2022, a fact lamented by child nutrition advocates and many school leaders, the fiscal year 2024 budget proposed Thursday by the White House would provide more than $15 million for school meals and feed an additional 9 million children.
The FRAC report lists several positive outcomes from the now-defunct policy, including the elimination of school meal debt, reduced administrative burden on schools, and better-supported school nutrition departments amid rising food costs and supply chain challenges.
The data adds to mounting evidence and support for universal meals, which advocates heavily lobbied for but Congress omitted from the fiscal 2022 budget.
Since the pandemic-era waivers ended, a majority of districts have reported an increase in school meal debt, according to a survey of over 1,200 districts conducted by the School Nutrition Association.
School participation in the meals program also dropped to 88% in fall 2022, compared to 94% participation in March 2022 when the waivers were in place. The share of public schools reporting more than half of their students received school meals dropped even more, from 84% in March 2022 to 69% in October 2022, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
At the time, the department said it was unsure if the pandemic-era universal free meals waiver drove this drop.
FRAC attributes the high levels of student participation in the meals program at least partly to the waivers, however.
“If we wish to maintain these high levels of participation and ensure that children have the nutrition they need to achieve in school, we need Congress to make additional investments in School Nutrition Programs," said Luis Guardia, president of FRAC, in a statement.
In the meantime, however, states are stepping in to fill the gaps left by the universal program's expiration.
By July 2022, just a month after the waivers expired, at least 20 states had either introduced or passed legislation establishing universal free school meals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California, Maine, Vermont and Colorado were among the first to do so, according to NCSL.
"We’re seeing states act to make Healthy School Meals for All a permanent part of the school day. Now, it’s time for Congress to do the same,” said Guardia.