It’s for our common good: School meals should be free for all students
In 2020, the federal government initiated an unprecedented experiment to feed every schoolchild in the United States, in response to the explosion of need brought on by the absence of a social safety net at the onset of the Covid pandemic. After declining in 2021, food insecurity rose for U.S. households in 2022 to levels equivalent to the earliest days of the pandemic.Despite this reversal, Congress allowed the program to expire on June 30, 2022, even as food prices had increased by more than 10 percent over the previous 12 months.
With 12 million American children struggling with hunger, educators and other student advocates warn that going back to the pre-pandemic norm is untenable. A recent School Nutrition Association survey found nearly all school nutrition directors were concerned for the solvency of their programs. So once it became clear that Congress would abandon the measure, advocates across the country began creating state-level models. But the federal government needs to step up to establish a minimal standard of care for all children. And Catholics should support universal free school meals both because it aids the poor and because it promotes the common good.
With 12 million American children struggling with hunger, educators and other student advocates warn that going back to the pre-pandemic norm is untenable.
Moral arguments aside, a 2021 review of 47 studies on the impact of free school meals makes it clear this is good public policy. Most found that universal free lunch programs boosted overall diet quality, food security and academic performance. Researchers also found that free school meals may be associated with a boost in household income among low-income families.
Currently, the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, which provide free and reduced-cost meals to schoolchildren, are means-tested. That means school meals are free for a family of four with a gross annual income below $36,075, and discounted for families of four earning less than $51,338. But a household of four attempting to buy eggs, pay rent, and by some miracle find adequate child care is poor even with an annual income well above $51,338.
One might reasonably wonder if the solution to food insecurity is to simply expand eligibility for these programs rather than universalize them. But universal benefits are more efficient as they lower administrative costs for school districts (which no longer have to determine eligibility for free lunch programs), and they remove hoops that the poor have to jump through. These administrative costs often make means-tested programs more expensive than universal ones. And universal free school meals do not prevent affluent parents from packing meals or extra goodies for their children. It does, however, enforce a minimum standard of care for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Universal benefits are more efficient as they lower administrative costs for school districts, and they remove hoops that the poor have to jump through.
Dividing most Americans into the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor obscures an undeniable fact about the life of the American working class as a whole: We are not O.K. Half of American workers made less than $35,000 in 2019, and most of us are struggling to make ends meet. Feeding America, a national network of food banks, reported last year that 53 million people sought help from food banks, pantries and other programs in 2021, up by one-third from pre-pandemic levels. Working-class millennials and Generation Xers, who by now have lived or worked though two national economic emergencies in 25 years, are familiar with this shared vulnerability.
Finally, an understatement: Moms are tired. An important contributing factor is the persistence of an unequal distribution of domestic labor by gender. American norms around domestic labor have not caught up to the reality that just before the “she-session” brought on by the lack of protections geared toward female workers in the first years of the pandemic, women accounted for a slight majority of the American workforce. Despite this, a Gallup survey from 2020 found that 59 percent of women reported they are likely to have greater child care responsibilities than their partners, and in a Pew Research Center survey from 2021, the same percentage of women said they were burdened with a greater share of household chores, with 74 percent saying they had more responsibility for managing their children’s schedule and activities.
Moms are tired. An important contributing factor is the persistence of an unequal distribution of domestic labor by gender.
According to a January 2020 study by Oxfam’s Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women in the United States spend an average 5.7 hours per day maintaining the household, more than two hours above the average for men. That difference is the equivalent of two more workdays per week! Notably, wealth did not protect women from this disparity; it only lessened it.
This tax on women’s time, health and capacity to devote their efforts elsewhere is a social problem that cannot be solved household by household. Social problems demand social solutions that match the proportion of their harm.
Our collective investment in the common good permits us to live fuller lives and contribute to society. I don’t have to exhaust myself blazing a fresh trail to the office every morning thanks to our shared investment in roads. We can also expand the individual capacities of mothers by making collective contributions to this basic need of all children.
At the signing ceremony for the National School Lunch Act of 1946, the legislation that created the National School Lunch Program, President Harry S. Truman began his remarks by situating it within a set of shared interests common to all Americans: “Today, as I sign the National School Lunch Act, I feel that the Congress has acted with great wisdom in providing the basis for strengthening the nation through better nutrition for our school children.” The National School Lunch Act, as its proponents saw it in 1946, promoted the common good.
Every president claims that his legislative priorities are in the national interest. But in Mr. Truman’s case, this was more than convenient framing. Malnutrition was a major reason the Selective Service rejected millions of draftees during World War II. This was a costly lesson in the depths and consequences of our shared interests. To advance the common good today, free school breakfast and lunch programs need to be universalized. Catholics interested in promoting this core tenet of our social teaching should support state-level efforts as a stopgap, but they should also pressure their federal legislators to make school meals a universal public benefit.