School Meal Participation Dramatically Increased As Kids Returned to School and to Free School Meals, Report Finds
Report reveals nearly 1.6 million more children received school breakfast and 10.1 million more children received school lunch during the 2021–2022 school year compared to the previous school year.
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2023 — With most schools back to in-person learning and offering breakfast and lunch at no cost to all of their students, participation in school meals grew dramatically during the 2021–2022 school year, slightly surpassing participation prior to the pandemic, according to a report released by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) during National School Breakfast Week (March 6–10, 2023).
FRAC’s The Reach of Breakfast and Lunch During the 2021–2022 School Year reveals that just over 15.5 million children received a breakfast, and 29.9 million children received a lunch on an average day during the 2021–2022 school year — an increase of 1.6 million children (11.2 percent) for breakfast, and 10.1 million (51.1 percent) for lunch compared to the previous year, and slightly above participation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This sharp increase in participation demonstrates what is possible when meals are provided to all students at no charge and children are back in school,” said Luis Guardia, president of FRAC. “Congress must build on this lesson learned and make healthy school meals for all a permanent reality for all children across the country.”
Key report findings:
· During the 2021–2022 school year, almost 2.4 billion breakfasts were served through the Seamless Summer Option (SSO) and School Breakfast Program combined, an increase of just over 237 million meals when compared to the 2020–2021 school year.
· Lunch saw an even more dramatic increase: During the 2021–2022 school year, almost 4.5 billion lunches were served through SSO and the National School Lunch Program combined, an increase of 1.5 billion meals when compared to the previous school year.
· Participation in 2021–2022 was higher than that of pre-pandemic levels, with just over 866,200 additional children participating in breakfast when compared to the 2018–2019 school year (the last full year before the pandemic), and 1.4 million additional children participating in school lunch.
At the onset of the pandemic, schools shuttered and participation in school meals dropped. Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to issue nationwide child nutrition waivers through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to provide the flexibilities needed during the pandemic to help reduce child hunger by maintaining school meal participation, most importantly the ability to offer free meals to all students. Unfortunately, these waivers are not available this school year, and states are already reporting a drop in the number of meals being served during the 2022–2023 school year.
Several states have responded to the expired waivers by making free school meals a permanent part of the school day, including California, Maine, and Colorado. Additional states have established free school meals for the 2022–2023 school year, including Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont.
“If we wish to maintain these high levels of participation and ensure that children have the nutrition they need to achieve in school, we need Congress to make additional investments in School Nutrition Programs. We’re seeing states act to make Healthy School Meals for All a permanent part of the school day. Now, it’s time for Congress to do the same,” said Guardia.
The benefits of providing meals to all children at no cost are numerous, from increasing meal participation, reducing hunger, and supporting academics and health, to reducing the stigma associated with eating school meals, ending unpaid school meal debt, and easing the administrative burden for schools.
Read The Reach of Breakfast and Lunch report and join FRAC in raising your hand for Healthy School Meals for All.
The Food Research & Action Center improves the nutrition, health, and well-being of people struggling against poverty-related hunger in the United States through advocacy, partnerships, and by advancing bold and equitable policy solutions. To learn more, visit FRAC.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.