“If a child eats hot lunch at school every day, they’re having approximately 180 meals out of the year at their educational institution.”
School meals. For many people, these two words bring apathy, if not downright discomfort. Soggy vegetables, wilted salads, and some kind of unidentifiable slosh called “gravy” come to mind.
Still, while not very pleasant, it’s not exactly a picture that you’d expect to cause heated arguments.
Actually, the kind of food schools serve is not the controversy that we’ll be discussing today. Instead, we’ll take a look at school meals in the context of their cost—that is, the pros and cons of offering free school meals to every child.
The Current State of Affairs
“The National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free school lunches to 31 million students at more than 100,000 public and private schools per day,” explains Food Revolution Network. “Meals must meet nutritional standards based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program. It was founded in 1946 by President Harry Truman and operates in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. The NSLP has fed millions of American schoolchildren over the decades. A similar program, the School Breakfast Program (SBP), provides breakfasts to children under the same general guidelines as the NSLP.
Currently, children who attend schools participating in the NSLP have access to free or low-cost meals, but only if they meet specific guidelines laid out by the program. The NSLP has basic requirements for students to be eligible for free or low-cost meals. These guidelines are laid out below by the Public School Review:
- “A child whose family income is at or below 130 percent of the poverty level can receive free meals
- A child whose family income is between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level can receive reduced-cost meals (Students in this category are not charged more than 40 cents per meal)
- If a child’s family income is over 185 percent of poverty, the student will pay [full] price for meals, which are actually still cost-subsidized by the local school district
- After school snacks are provided for children using the same income guidelines; however, students attending a school where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for NSLP are all provided snacks free of charge”
While the National School Lunch Program provides an incredible number of lunches to school children, it doesn’t offer free meals to every child. The same goes for the School Breakfast Program.
And that’s where the controversy comes in.
Some advocate for free meals for all students, but others oppose this idea. The question is not likely to be settled for years to come, but both sides have good arguments to consider.
Pros of Free Meals for Every Student
“Universal free school meal policy has both a business case and a moral case, and it makes sense whether you see it from the perspective of the child, parent, teacher or taxpayers/society as a whole,” suggests The Guardian. “… giving a free, healthy, hot lunch to all children will improve the health and education outcomes of a whole generation.”
From claims of educational benefits to leveling the proverbial “playing field,” the virtues of this concept are praised high and low. Let’s briefly examine some of the positive aspects of offering free school meals to every child:
- Children can’t learn on an empty stomach. Regardless of family income, many children end up without lunch at school. Their cafeteria tab hasn’t been paid because their single dad simply forgot to pay. Their mom forgot to prepare a packed lunch to take with them. Whatever the case, readily available income isn’t always the issue for a child going hungry. And, a hungry child is a distracted child.
According to the Food Research & Action Center, “Students who eat do better than students who miss meals.…Students in schools with healthy meals for all fared better on tests than their peers in schools without universal [meals] in a carefully controlled study by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.”
Free meals for all students would significantly reduce the likelihood of hungry children laboring through their studies, regardless of the cause of their hunger.
- Free school meals for all children would “level the playing field.” Often, there are stigmas associated with using a free meal program at school. By far, this is one of the most compelling incentives to universalize free lunches.
According to the FordFoundation, one in three New York City students eligible for a free lunch chooses to go hungry instead of enjoying their free meal. Why? Because of the stigma attached to identifying as a low-income child.
“Some kids are hesitant to participate in the programs, feeling embarrassed that they are different from their peers. There can be a stigma attached to receiving free and reduced lunch, especially in the upper grades, when peer pressure can make kids reluctant to accepting free meals,” explains New America. “In some cases, children may have to go to alternate locations in the school to receive a free meal, separating them from their peers.”
If every student had access to free meals, there would be very little basis for stigmatization or bullying based on a student’s meal ticket.
- Free meals for all help to fight childhood hunger. Regardless of the reasons, thousands of children go hungry at school. Ultimately, free school meals for all students would drastically reduce this problem.
As Civil Eats points out, “School meals have the potential to serve as a safety net for us all.…How can we shape school meals to better (re)connect us to each other, reinforce solidarities across lines of social difference, and provide much-needed support to everyone raising children today?”
Cons of Free Meals for Every Student
“While it’s easy to see the benefits that the NSLP provides, the program has also been subject to controversy and criticism over the years. The program has also struggled to keep up with the increasing demand.”
This evaluation of the National School Lunch Program from Vanco Education highlights a few issues with the program. Now, imagine these issues multiplying substantially across all government-run meal programs if free meals were offered to every student.
This is not the only argument from the opposition. Below are just a few of the objections made by those who don’t support free school breakfasts and lunches for all:
- It’s no secret that nearly anything the government is involved in ends up with mishandled finances, unnecessary costs, and inefficiency. That’s just the cost of the government doing business. It really isn’t surprising, then, that the current school meal programs are plagued with exactly these issues.
The Heritage Foundation points out that these problems already exist in the current meal programs. “According to the Office of Management and Budget, the National School Lunch Program lost nearly $800 million owing to improper payments in fiscal year 2018, while the School Breakfast Program lost $300 million. The Office of Management and Budget calls these programs ‘high-priority’ programs because of the misspending.”
Similarly, the Niskanen Center explains that the NSLP is a prime example of the inefficiency of these types of federal programs. The Niskanen Center states, “According to spending and participation figures from the OMB and USDA respectively…costs have continued to rise, despite the fact that the total number of students in the program declined.”
According to the USDA’s “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study,” the average school meal program operates at a slight deficit. The study also found that the reported cost of offering school meals generally exceeds the federal reimbursements allotted for those meals. It doesn’t appear that the country, in general, can afford to provide free school meals to all students, regardless of their qualifying status.
- The quality of school food isn’t great. There’s an entire group of Americans who are downright concerned about it. Despite these concerns, budget is one factor that keeps food quality low.
“The National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free school lunches to 31 million students at more than 100,000 public and private schools per day.…Participating schools receive approximately $1.30 to spend for each child,” notes the Food Revolution Network. “This amount must cover the food, as well as any labor, equipment, electricity, and other costs … Tight budgets make serving healthier foods challenging.”
Now, imagine providing free meals to ALL students, regardless of income status. With low budgets already causing significant issues as far as food quality goes, we can reasonably assume that the $1.30 per student would be drastically cut with an added influx of new students expecting free school meals.
- According to one PMC study, an estimated $1.2 billion worth of school food is wasted each year. Skeptics of free meals for all schoolchildren fear that waste will only continue to rise if universally free school meals are an option.
A Cambridge University Press study appears to support these concerns: “US public schools, which serve 7·4 billion meals to more than 30 million children represent a prime target for food waste reduction.…Previous research suggests that food waste in US public schools is substantial in magnitude and value.…As SBP [School Breakfast Program] participation continues to increase and universal free school meal programmes expand, total food waste in such programmes is expected to rise concomitantly.”
The Bottom Line
There are good arguments on both sides of this debate.
Children need to eat, and no child should go hungry because of circumstances ultimately out of their control. Free meals for all children would eliminate several complex issues and benefit thousands, if not millions, of children. On the other hand, the objections to the free meal strategy are valid, too. Fiscal responsibility and the quality of the meals offered, for instance, remain huge problems that aren’t likely to get better with larger output.
The bottom line is that Americans must carefully weigh the pros and cons of the issue and develop a logical and effective strategy. No system will be perfect, but with careful thought, research, and creativity, there may just be a suitable answer out there that can satisfy both camps.
We’ll just have to wait and see what that answer might be.