A majority of adults — nearly 70% — back a permanent universal school meal policy, according to a new report by the Urban Institute with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
For the past two years, pandemic-era meal waivers granted by Congress have allowed all students to eat for free in schools, regardless of their family’s income. However, that policy will come to a close this fall as the universal school meal waiver is set to expire today.
Now, families who qualify for free and reduced-price meals will have to apply to be eligible.
In the nationally representative Urban Institute survey of 8,142 adults conducted in December, adults living with school-aged children were more likely (76%) to say they want free school meals for all than were adults not living with students (67%).
Among adults with school-aged children, about 4 out of 5 living below 200% of the federal poverty line said they supported universal school meals. While 7 out of 10 adults living with students and having earnings above that threshold said they support universal meals.
“This analysis finds that the majority of adults, regardless of whether they lived with children enrolled in school, support permanent access to free school meals for all students,” said Emily Gutierrez, research associate at the Urban Institute, in a statement. “And for those living with children in school, support existed across differences in household earnings, suggesting free meals made available by federal waivers are a critical source of support for families.”
Congress recently salvaged free meals for this summer, along with other meal waivers that address food costs, labor shortages and supply chain issues impacting school nutrition programs through the Keep Kids Fed Act. The newly enacted law did not include universal school meals for the upcoming school year, as many child nutrition advocates had lobbied for.
Some Republican legislators expressed concerns over continuing universal school meals as the Keep Kids Fed Act was being considered in Congress this month. For example, legislation sponsor Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, said on the House floor that “Congress never intended to provide universal free breakfasts and lunches to all K-12 students regardless of need.”
Even so, several states have made efforts to secure universal school meals on their own.