The Case for Universal School Lunch

How can food and nutrition programs best combat child hunger? The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the path for one possible solution: universal school lunch. Advocates pushing for a long-term implementation cite the academic and health benefits of such programs.

National School Lunch Week 

As the US passes the one-year mark for COVID-19 restrictions, many are concerned about how much K-12 students are learning. Perhaps more important, would be to ask if students are eating.  

In observation of National School Lunch Week, many are bringing attention to food insecurity. More than 50 million Americans are currently experiencing food insecurity, and some experts report as many as 11 million children facing some form of hunger. 

For a handful of these kids, school is the only place they can find food to eat.  

The Impact of a Sack Lunch 

Experts agree that school lunches are vital to child success. Access to proper nutrition correlates with better test scores, memory recall, and overall health. For children experiencing other adverse social determinants of health—for example, living in lower-income neighborhoods or lacking adequate transportation—the impact is even greater.  

School lunches “allow kids to thrive in other areas,” says Ashley Moen of the Colorado Department of Education. 

Despite the benefits of providing lunch, many schools still struggle to feed their students. Only 15% of students who qualify for free or reduced meals receive them, according to the Brookings Institute. This may be due to the stigma surrounding subsidized lunches, with kids avoiding the shame that accompanies reduced pricing. 

However, one policy has been able to circumvent this stigma and provide more food to children in need: universal school lunch.  

Could Universal School Lunch Really Work? 

One silver lining to COVID-19 is that emergency federal funding has allowed schools across the nation to provide universal school lunch. For many of these schools, it is the first time that all students can receive lunch (and in many cases, breakfast) for no charge. For those who are learning virtually, some schools have even orchestrated daily sack lunch pick-ups for parents to grab food for their kids. 

Universal student lunch is feeding more children as well as reducing the stigma around those on exempt programs. With no need for reduced pricing, students who normally need the subsidies are no longer singled out from their peers. 

Households with children are more likely to experience food insecurity. Before the pandemic, an estimated 10 million children in the US were already going hungry.

Universal school lunch programs have proven academic benefits. New York City had already implemented universal meals before the coronavirus pandemic and found statistical evidence of higher test scores. Other cities like Boston and Chicago have followed suit, making universal school lunch the norm even outside of COVID-19.  

However, most school systems across the country are only able to provide universal lunch with federal funding. Once the pandemic is more under control—likely during the coming summer—they will lose the funds required to keep such initiatives afloat. 

Notwithstanding, advocates for universal school lunch are pushing to change it permanently. 

“We pay for desks, we pay for the (gym class) balls, we pay for the teachers, we pay for the towels in the bathroom for gosh’s sake,” says Michael Gasper, head of the Wisconsin School Nutrition Association. 

“We don’t make people pay for their textbooks based on their income level, yet we do that with food.” 

More Meals to Come 

Even if universal school lunch continues, challenges remain for child nutrition. Food insecure kids do not have access to meals on weekends, leaving a two-day gap of little or no nutrition. Beyond that, summer breaks pose dangerous for child health, where they may not have any dependable source for food. 

Some food and nutrition organizations provide summer sack lunch programs to try and mitigate this problem. Even still, they agree that universal school lunch is one of the best ways to lift the burden of childhood food insecurity and allow resource re-allocation. Without school assistance, less children will be able to eat. 

Care Coordination is critical to effective food and nutrition assistance. As organizations dealing with food insecurity work with programs like universal school lunch, proper data management is crucial to ensuring that children do not slip through the cracks.  

Case management systems like ClientTrack™ have the power and capability to manage such data. With extensive experience serving food and nutrition organizations, ClientTrack can ensure children and their families are regularly receiving the care they need.  

With an end to the pandemic on the horizon, advocates are hoping the same is not true for universal school lunch. This program brings higher test scores and better school performance but most importantly, less children are going hungry. 


Food Insecurity Is Rising. Can SNAP Meet The Challenge? 

Does Back To School Mean Back To COVID-19?

Implications Of The Pandemic On K-12 Education 

Fighting Food Insecurity 

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