After losing most USDA waivers for free meals for all, large school districts report big drops in participation, and one Washington, D.C.-based food policy group is calling for free meals for all, forever. In a report released today, the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) shares survey findings from 91 large school districts in 40 states and the District of Columbia and their reported breakfast and lunch participation and operations in April 2022 and October 2022.
The resulting Large School District Report: Operating School Nutrition Programs as the Nation Recovers From the Pandemic found that school breakfast decreased by more than 100,000 across all the surveyed districts (from 1.84 million kids participating in breakfast each day in April to 1.74 million in October). Lunch participation didn’t fare any better, dropping by more than 250,000 students across districts.
The report highlights the fact that even though schools and the nutrition teams that serve them are running in a “back to normal” mindset, the large school districts’ foodservice departments “reported continuing to face a multitude of challenges affecting operations and participation, such as rising food costs, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and more,” according to the report’s summary.
FRAC President Luis Guardia sees these findings as proof of a nationwide step back for school nutrition. “We cannot lose the progress gained with Healthy School Meals for All,” Guardia says. “The return to pre-pandemic operations results in too many children missing out on the nutrition they need to fuel their health and learning. It’s time to move forward with permanent nationwide healthy school meals for all.”
The large school districts in the survey agreed, with vast majorities citing benefits to offering school meals to all students at no charge. Benefits include: Making it easier for parents and guardians; decreasing child hunger; eliminating stigma attached to free meals; supporting household finances in tough times; eliminating school meal debt and the paperwork that goes with it; strengthening nutrition and academics for students. Get the full report here.