If passed, the Universal School Meals Program Act would provide free meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) to all students, regardless of income level. When the school year ends, this bill also ensures all students will have food in the summer by expanding the summer meals program to include all communities as well as providing an additional $60 per month per child on EBT cards. This bill aims to undo many of the flaws in the current school meals system.
The labeling of students as “low-income” has led to instances of public shaming. When students are seen being unable to pay for meals, they can be ridiculed by their peers due to financial situations they cannot control. Students have also faced shaming from school staff. For example, a school in Alabama stamped “I need lunch money” on an eight-year-old’s arm when their account balance ran low. Providing free meals for all students would prevent these occurrences and result in a more welcoming atmosphere for low-income children.
Those opposing this bill believe that providing free meals for all students would lead to unnecessary spending going toward students who can afford it, though supporters of this bill would say such actions are meant to end public shaming and take social pressure off of students that can’t pay.
This bill also strives to strengthen local economies by incentivizing the procurement of local food. If schools source 25 percent of the food offered at meals from local farms, it would give those farmers an additional $3.3 billion in income per year. This would mean a large positive economic impact for rural communities especially.
The National Farm to School Network believes this bill, aligned with the values of Farm to School programs, could greatly improve school food systems. It would bring economic justice to producers and consumers by putting money into communities, and would contribute to the network’s mission of environmental justice by sourcing from sustainable suppliers. Additionally, Farm to School programs would thrive under this bill, allowing them to bring hands-on educational opportunities around nutrition and local food systems to students who would otherwise be unaware of these subjects. Researchers have found that schools with Farm to School programs experience an increase in the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by students, an increase in the amount of participation in school meal programs, and students with a better understanding of nutrition.
Most of all, the goal of this bill is to ensure no child goes hungry, and all children get the nutrition they need. Current free and reduced meal programs still leave out many struggling families who do not qualify. Providing free meals to all students ensures no student is left out, and children can avoid being labeled and shamed. This bill also eliminates school meal debt, meaning schools will not have to track down parents who haven’t paid off meal expenses, and parents won’t have to worry about their children missing meals because they can’t afford it.
You can stay updated on the Universal School Meal Programs Act by checking out this page. Here, you can also find how to contact your representatives. To show your support, call and email your representatives, and tell your friends so they can do the same.
More information about the bill can be found here.
Caroline Burns is a senior at Western Washington University majoring in Environmental Education and is a college intern at FFAC.