Families brace for possible end of universal free school meals

The program was not included in the Senate's $1.5 trillion spending bill.

March 15, 2022, 5:08 AM

Against all the odds, Meighen Lovelace pulled off a feat sure to impress any parent: convincing her adolescent girls to adore broccoli.

For Lovelace, a single mother of two in Eagle County, Colorado, it was a hard-fought, decadeslong battle. Through mornings of at-home gardening, afternoons of hands-on chopping, and evenings of homemade pizza baking, her girls came to love fresh vegetables. And even as budgets tightened during the pandemic—Lovelace said she was fired from her job waiting black-tie banquet tables at a Vail ski resort when the lifts shut down—she relied on school meals to ensure her daughters remained nourished and full.

But with universal free meal programs set to expire in June, Lovelace fears what the future holds. If that happens, she expects her grocery budget to double—something her current gig in a barbeque food truck will be hard-pressed to support. She anticipates relying on food banks to ensure there's enough to go around.

"This isn't forever but it is right now," Lovelace said, "without school [meals], I don't really know what right now is going to look like."

Lovelace and her family are not alone.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, a tray is shown during lunch at an elementary school in Winter Park, Fla.
In this Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, a tray is shown during lunch at an elementary school in Winter Park, Fla.
Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images, FILE

In a move that took advocates by surprise, universal free school meal programs, initially introduced in March 2020 as the pandemic began, were not included in the $1.5 trillion spending bill passed by the Senate on Thursday night.

Should the programs be left to expire in June, an estimated 10 million children will lose access to free school lunches, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) told ABC News. And for families like Lovelace's, losing school meals isn't easy to replace. They're often the healthiest and most consistent source of sustenance for children of families under financial pressure.

The effects reach beyond rumbling bellies, too. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the long-term consequences of hunger include reduced academic achievement, behavioral issues, and chronic illnesses like diabetes already endemic among American children.

That's why having school meals as a buffer against food insecurity is so important, Robert Harvey, president of FoodCorps—a nonprofit supporting healthy meals for over 150,000 students every year—told ABC News.

Food insecurity—which the USDA defines as "limited or uncertain access to adequate food"—plagued more than 11 million American children before the pandemic. "Adequate food" refers to the difference between a lunch with fruits, vegetables, and milk to one with chips and a soda, Harvey said. Those numbers have only worsened during the pandemic: recent studies indicate that millions more children may go hungry every day.

The numbers only reinforce the importance of schools as sanctuaries for consistent and healthy eating habits, Harvey said.

PHOTO: a student carrying a lunch tray
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Especially for families near the poverty line, not having "to think about providing five breakfast meals, five lunch meals, a snack, and a drink," he said, that makes school meals "one of the stress-reducing, anxiety-reducing, financially-liberating benefits of public education in this country."

Another issue with the expiration of universal meals? Stigma.

After the program expires, families will still be able to apply for reduced-price meals for their children, Robin Cogan, a school nurse in Camden, New Jersey, told ABC News. But lots of parents may be reluctant to apply. For example, for those with unsettled citizenship status—like many of the Honduran and Guatemalan families in her majority-minority district—"there's distrust of any government system," Cogan said. "They really don't want to leave a trail of who they are because they're afraid they'll be picked up."

Children may also fear using reduced-price meals that often constitute a scarlet letter, Ben Atkinson, nutrition services coordinator for the Auburn school district in Washington, told ABC News.

"Kids aren't stupid," he said. "They know who's getting free lunch, who is paying cash, [and] who can afford to get an extra bag of chips from the vending machine."

All of this matters because at the end of the day, Cogan said, hunger isn't just about feeling full. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "multiple adverse health outcomes [are] strongly correlated with food insecurity" including brain function—which can lead to poorer academic achievement, mental illness, and/or behavioral problems—and chronic illnesses like diabetes that already afflict hundreds of thousands of American kids.

Lovelace fears these challenges for her daughters if Congress doesn't renew universal school meals.

Democrats said they are still pushing to extend the program, at least through the 2022-23 school year. But the degree to which the Biden administration is on board for the estimated $11 billion program remains unclear.

According to one congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the administration requested an extension of the USDA program last January. But the department has declined to answer questions about that request. Now that the spending bill has come and gone, advocates are holding out hope that extensions to school meals will be tacked on to other legislation, such as a COVID spending bill President Joe Biden wants.

In the meantime, parents like Lovelace are watching nervously from the sidelines. "Access to food is sacred," she said, "let's not fight about it—let's just feed our kids."

"It's the one thing Congress shouldn't be squabbling over."

ABC News' Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.