Over half of 91 large school districts (54%) nationwide reported a decrease in both breakfast and lunch school meal participation after the expiration of pandemic-era waivers that allowed schools to offer free meals to all students, according to a report released last week by the Food Research and Action Center.
Daily participation in lunch decreased almost 7% during that time, from 3.61 million students to 3.36 million students on average.
For the 91 school districts, which serve 6.5 million students across 40 states, average daily participation in breakfast decreased about 5%, from 1.84 million children to 1.74 million children between April 2022 and October 2022.
In the 2022-23 school years, universal school meal waivers were no longer available, having ended — much to the consternation of child hunger advocates — in fall 2022 as the pandemic waned. Although operational flexibilities were available to address other challenges such as labor shortages and supply chain disruptions, three-quarters of the 91 districts polled said they did not use any waivers as of October 2022.
By then, most districts had to return to the old eligibility system that required families to apply for free and reduced-price meals. As a result, FRAC said, millions of children lost access to free school meals.
Other data also shows drops in school meal participation following the end to the waivers. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the share of public schools reporting more than half of students eating school meals dropped from 84% in March 2022 to 69% in October.
The department said it was unsure if waivers' expiration drove this drop. Schools, however, cited specific challenges to raising participation rates, including convincing parents to submit applications for free and reduced-priced meals, staffing shortages and increased costs.
FRAC, along with public school and child nutrition advocates, cites universal school meals as a way to reduce some of these challenges. In a separate report released in March, FRAC identified positive outcomes of free meals for all, including reduced school meal debt, fewer administrative burdens and better-supported school nutrition departments.
However, Congress failed to go along with repeated requests to make the waivers permanent. A number of states have stepped into the breach, though, passing either limited-duration or permanent universal school meal programs. Six states — California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont — have universal meals, according to the New York City Food Policy Center.
At least 26 other states and the District of Columbia have made an effort to address universal school meals locally.
The Democrat-backed Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023, introduced in May in both the House and Senate, would provide meals to all students regardless of family income. Lawmakers behind the measure cited paperwork and social stigma as factors that discourage families from applying for current school meals benefits.
The legislation would also reimburse schools for all school meal debt, which has increased with the end of federal waivers, according to a report released this year by the School Nutrition Association. Similar efforts have failed in years past.