E81: Time for Universal Free School Meals

E81: Time for Universal Free School Meals

This podcast is part of Duke World Food Policy Center – The Leading Voices in Food series focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our food system. When the pandemic forced schools to close, school districts and states scrambled to keep a nutritional safety net working for vulnerable students. Millions of US students rely on school meals and summer feeding programs to get food each day. I am delighted to welcome Janet Poppendieck from the City University of New York Urban Food Policy Institute to this podcast. She is the author of “Free for All: Fixing School Lunch in America.”

Interview Summary

So can we begin by asking you to describe what’s happening now in school and nutrition programs during the pandemic?

School food service personnel are very aware many children in the United States are dependent on school food for at least two meals a day. There are 13,598 school districts in the United States, and each of these has had to make its own decisions and own arrangements. But basically, what happened is the pandemic escalated, the schools were closed with very little notice. Schools had inventories of food in their freezers and pantries, purchases of meals stocked, there were no students buying school lunch, and the reimbursements by the federal government for students who were eligible for free meals stopped. But the fixed costs that school food service operations incur continued. The first thing that happened was looming financial disaster.

School food service departments stepped up to do what they can to continue to meet the needs. Some of those have decided to provide meals to take home and, for those school food service operations, costs increase. They needed personal protective equipment for their workers. They needed to impose social distancing on the production and packaging of food. They needed a big investment in packaging that they wouldn’t normally have to do. Some of them had transportation costs. There are five components that are part of the USDA required meal plan to package meals to go. They would be required to include all five components. That upped the cost of providing meals.

So we have school districts all over the country that are doing what they can to get the meals to students in need. There’s been a lot of adaptation and innovation. Some put the meals on school buses and send them along the school bus routes. Some are in urban areas where schools are close enough that people can walk to them to pick up their food in New York City. In May, we were doing about 600,000 grab-and-go meals per day; that’s close to the number of meals that New York City serves when school is in session. New York City and many other school districts in the country have benefited from something called the Community Eligibility Program, which enables schools to serve meals free to all students if at least 40% of them are identified as eligible for three meals through the SNAP program or other means tested programs that identified people in need. So in those districts, it’s been easy to make the meals available to all children. About six months from now, we’ll know how many meals were being distributed across the country.

You mentioned some ingenuity with using school buses as a means of delivering food. Are there other things that you think have been working well in this context?

I’m very impressed with New York City’s food hubs. We have about 1,200 school buildings in New York and at the peak of this operation, about 530 of them were considered hubs and were distributing meals. The logistics are challenging. Each time a staff member at one of those schools came up with a positive COVID test, that hub had to be closed with no warning, post a sign on the door that identifies other schools where people could pick up meals, and this was something that happened on a daily basis. Some school districts have worked through their local food banks and through networks of food pantries rather than the school buildings themselves.

Some have arranged for home delivery, not just the school bus route but in more densely populate urban areas. In LA, Uber was providing a reduced-fare ride to the schools for families to pick up meals, and many schools have offered several days’ meals. They’ve offered meals that were largely shelf stable items so you could pick up not one day’s meals but three days’ meals for your whole family. So it’s been a lot of working around the logistics of access.

So are there things that you think would be worth continuing once the pandemic is over, that were lessons learned in the hard way but might be useful ones to keep up with?

One of the things that has emerged from this is, I think, a new respect for school food service workers. Suddenly, they’re essential workers. There was actually a TIME Magazine cover with a lunch lady on it, and it warmed my heart to see it because I feel like this has been one of the most underappreciated work forces in the United States. And I think that’s beginning to change. I think the efforts at school systems have made to continue the food service has brought visibility to school food workers. So I hope that will continue after the pandemic.

The most important thing to be done is to move us to universal free school meals. In the current system, some kids are eligible for free meals, some kids are eligible for a reduced-price meal, and some kids are expected to pay full price. The three tier eligibility system creates a huge administrative burden for the schools because they have to distribute and collect and process the applications. The worst part of it is a stigma. When kids know that people are treated differently based on their parents’ income, they very quickly get the idea that school meals are for poor kids, and then they don’t want to have anything to do with them. Stigma deters people from participating, and it also contaminates the food. Kids come to see the school meal, not the way they might feel about meals at camp. It’s something we look forward to and all share.

It makes it impossible for many students who are actually in need to access the program because their income is above the threshold, particularly students who live in areas of the country where housing costs are high. It leads to the accumulation of lunch debt and then this phenomenon known as lunch shaming where kids who have run up a bill at the cafeteria are publicly shamed when their lunch is taken away from them. Then they’re sent down the line to get a “stigma sandwich,” as it’s sometimes referred to, a very modest meal.

It is time for us to make the commitment to feed our children at school. We know that during the COVID epidemic, we have been seeing very high rates of food insecurity, particularly among children, and it’s time to use the school food program to its fullest to end this.

And I’m very happy to tell you that there are now two terrific campaigns underway aimed at exactly that. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has lent its considerable credibility and expertise to the goal of extending free school meals to all children for the next school year as a way of getting through the coronavirus, as the foundation’s spokesperson has said. When schools are struggling to figure out how to provide basic education to students, they don’t need to be processing applications for free and reduced-price lunch. And the Urban School Food Alliance, which is an organization of the nation’s largest school district, has teamed up with an organization called Student Voice to create the School Lunch for All campaign. And you can access the website of either of those organizations, either Urban School Food Alliance or Student Voice, or you can go directly to change.org and put in “demand Congress provide free school meals to every K-12 student in America.”


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