There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch… Or Is There?

Kids enjoying a free lunch, photo courtesy of Lance Cheung on Flickr

By Maliyah Ledesma, age 11

Under the federal pandemic relief program, which was enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, school lunches were free for all regardless of your family’s income. This program expired at the beginning of the 2022 school year. Now parents must once again prove their income and register their child for either free or reduced-cost meals. But some suggest that free lunches for all students might be beneficial for kids’ welfare in the long term.

According to the Food Research & Action Center, “Students who eat do better than students who miss meals.” In a study by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, it was found that students in schools which provide healthy meals for all performed better in tests than those without free meals. Kids are easily distracted and struggle to learn on an empty stomach, and many school kids end up not eating during the day regardless of their family’s income. This may be due to unpaid bills or forgotten packed lunches.

“Students who eat do better than students who miss meals.”

Food Research & Action Center

While the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federally funded program enacted in 1946, provides students with free or reduced-cost meals if their families meet certain income requirements, the program has often been heavily criticized. Over 95% of all U.S. schools participate in the NSLP, providing lunches for nearly 30 million kids. However, even though in 2020 alone the program cost taxpayers $14.1 billion, this translates to just $1.30 per child. This small amount needs to cover food cost, labor, electricity and the cafeteria equipment. For this reason, the meals provided under the NSLP are often very low quality and do not provide kids with the necessary nutrients essential for a healthy diet.

Many kids rely on school lunches as they may not be able to get a good meal at home. In the United States, one in six children do not have consistent access to food for a healthy lifestyle. Yet, according to the Ford Foundation, one in three students eligible for a free lunch choose to go hungry instead of enjoying their free meal. This may be due to a number of reasons. Students might feel stigmatized because receiving free lunch may identify them as low-income. The registration process for NSLP meals can be confusing, especially for kids with parents who don’t speak English. Providing universal school lunches for all would help reduce social stigma and significantly reduce the amount of hungry children struggling in the school system. 

Photo by Lance Cheung on Flickr

Although having access to a free lunch could improve overall child welfare, there could be some downsides. According to a PubMed Central study, the NSLP contributes an estimated $1.2 billion of wasted school food each year. The cost per child would have to be increased far beyond the NSLP’s current budget, as the quality of the ingredients are often very poor. Free meals for all children will cause the waste to rise if the program is adopted universally and not properly funded. Currently, unhealthy food options far outweigh the healthy options in most schools, an issue that is far more prevalent for low-income schools and school districts.

Providing free healthy school lunches could ultimately improve child welfare and pave the way for healthier eating habits later in life. Some school districts in California and New York have begun improving school lunches by incorporating plant-based options. At the beginning of the 2022 school year, California became the first state to pass legislation which grants all students, regardless of income, two free meals a day while in school. Will your school be next?

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