Calls Mount for US to Provide Free School Meals to All Children

Children eat a meal at school.

(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

Calls Mount for US to Provide Free School Meals to All Children

"Hiving off a tiny part of the public school bundle and charging a means-tested fee for it is extremely stupid," argues Matt Bruenig.

Minnesota last week became just the fourth U.S. state to guarantee universal free school meals, triggering a fresh wave of demands and arguments for a similar federal policy to feed kids.

"Universal school meals is now law in Minnesota!" Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who represents the state, tweeted Monday. "Now, we need to pass our Universal School Meals Program Act to guarantee free school meals to every child across the country."

Omar's proposal, spearheaded in the upper chamber by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), "would permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all school children regardless of income, eliminate school meal debt, and strengthen local economies by incentivizing local food procurement," the lawmakers' offices explained in 2021.

Congressional Republicans last year blocked the continuation of a Covid-19 policy enabling public schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all 50 million children, and now, many families face rising debt over childrens' cafeteria charges.

"The school bus service doesn't charge fares. Neither should the school lunch service."

Matt Bruenig, founder of the People's Policy Project, highlighted Monday that while children who attend public schools generally have not only free education but also free access to bathrooms, textbooks, computer equipment, playgrounds, gyms, and sports gear, "around the middle of each school day, the free schooling service is briefly suspended for lunch."

"How much each kid is charged is based on their family income except that, if a kid lives in a school or school district where 40% or more of the kids are eligible for free lunch, then they are also eligible for free lunch even if their family income would otherwise be too high," he detailed. "Before Covid, in 2019, 68.1% of the kids were charged $0, 5.8% were charged $0.40, and 26.1% were charged the full $4.33... The total cost of the 4.9 billion meals is around $21 billion per year. In 2019, user fees covered $5.6 billion of this cost."

Bruenig—whose own child has access to free school meals because of the community eligibility program—continued:

The approximately $5.6 billion of school lunch fees collected in 2019 were equal to 0.7% of the total cost of K-12 schooling. In order to collect these fees, each school district has to set up a school lunch payments system, often by contracting with third-party providers like Global Payments. They also have to set up a system for dealing with kids who are not enrolled in the free lunch program but who show up to school with no money in their school lunch account or in their pockets. In this scenario, schools will either have to make the kid go without lunch, give them a free lunch for the day (but not too many times), or give them a lunch while assigning their lunch account a debt.

Eligibility for the $0 and $0.40 lunches is based on income, but this does not mean that everyone with an eligible income successfully signs up for the program. As with all means-tested programs, the application of the means test not only excludes people with ineligible incomes, but also people with eligible incomes who fail to successfully navigate the red tape of the welfare bureaucracy.

The think tank leader tore into arguments against universal free meals for kids, declaring that "hiving off a tiny part of the public school bundle and charging a means-tested fee for it is extremely stupid."

Bruenig pointed out that socializing the cost of child benefits like school meals helps "equalize the conditions of similarly-situated families with different numbers of children" and "smooths incomes across the lifecycle by ensuring that, when people have kids, their household financial situation remains mostly the same."

"Indeed, this is actually the case for the welfare state as whole, not just child benefits," the expert emphasized, explaining that like older adults and those with disabilities, children cannot and should not work, which "makes it impossible to receive personal labor income, meaning that some other non-labor income system is required."

Conservative opponents of free school lunches often claim that "fees serve an important pedagogical function in society to get people to understand personal responsibility" and because they "are means-tested, they serve an important income-redistributive function in society," he noted. "Both arguments are hard to take seriously."

Pushing back against the first claim, Bruenig stressed that right-wingers don't apply it to other aspects of free schooling such as bus services. He also wrote that the means-testing claim "is both untrue and at odds with their general attitudes on, not just redistribution, but on how child benefit programs specifically should be structured."

A tax for everyone with a certain income intended to make up the $5.6 billion in school meal fees, he argued, "would have a larger base and thus represent a smaller share of the income of each person taxed and such a tax would smooth incomes over time," while also eliminating means-testing—which would allow schools to feed all kids and ditch costly payment systems.

As Nora De La Cour reported Sunday for Jacobin: "The fight for school meals traces its roots all the way back to maternalist Progressive Era efforts to shield children and workers from the ravages of unregulated capitalism. In her bookThe Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools, Jennifer Gaddis describes how early school lunch crusaders envisioned meal programs that would be integral to schools' educational missions, immersing students in hands-on learning about nutrition, gardening, food preparation, and home economics. Staffed by duly compensated professionals, these programs would collectivize and elevate care work, making it possible for mothers of all economic classes to efficiently nourish their young."

Now, families who experienced the positive impact of the pandemic-era program want more from the federal government.

"When schools adopt universal meals through community eligibility or another program, we see improvements in students' academic performance, behavior, attendance, and psychosocial functioning," wrote De La Cour, whose reporting also includes parent and cafeteria worker perspectives. "Above all, the implementation of universal meals causes meal participation to shoot up, demonstrating that the need far exceeds the number of kids who are able to get certified."

Crystal FitzSimons, director of school-based programs at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), told Jacobin, "There is a feeling that we can't go back."

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