Welcome to the end of universal free school meals

Kids are back in school and those lunches require paperwork – and payment – again. Food insecurity rates held steady in 2021, but went down for households with children. And why USDA sees local food as a resilience plan.

School children stand backs to the camera facing a cafeteria line for lunch.s

Hello! Welcome to Food Fix, which comes to you this morning from John Burroughs Elementary School in Northeast Washington, D.C. where Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack just held a press conference on school meals and announcements are currently blasting over the intercom.

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Food Fix in the news: A podcast I recorded last month was just posted over at The New Republic’s Politics of Everything. It’s about the Daily Harvest debacle and social media but also about food safety in the U.S. more broadly, and especially on what is going on at FDA. You can give it a listen here

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Alright, let’s get to it –



Today, in Food Fix: 

– Universal free school meals have ended. What comes next?

– Vilsack calms nerves about the White House conference

– Food insecurity held steady in 2021, but went down for households with children

– Why USDA sees local food as a resilience plan


Welcome to the end of universal free school meals

There’s an old adage in politics that goes something like this: Once you create a government benefit or a program, it’s almost impossible to end it. Inertia is powerful and so is the fear of angering a key constituency, like, say seniors. (It’s why no one with any real power is coming for Medicare or Social Security.)

As universal free meals come to an end nationwide this school year – after more than two years of being the law of the land – it’s hard not to think this adage is outdated, or at the very least does not apply to children. 

Schools loved how much simpler it was to cut down on paperwork to see which families qualified for free or reduced-priced meals and which didn’t. They loved getting more federal funding, which makes it easier to run their nutrition programs. It was less staffwork, at a time when staffing is a major challenge. Less paperwork (not to mention free meals!) was also popular with families who are already drowning in paper or digital notices at the beginning of the school year. Food companies that supply schools liked it, too – it translated to more demand.

By the numbers: Spending on child nutrition programs more than doubled during the pandemic, per USDA figures. In fiscal year 2019, $23.6 billion was spent on these programs. In 2021, $56.7 billion. This was in part due to universal free meals offered at schools, including grab and go and other more flexible options, but a huge chunk of that increase was the rollout of Pandemic-EBT, which gave families with school children debit-like EBT cards to buy groceries.

Free lunch isn’t free: Of course, there’s a very real ideological debate about whether universal free meals is a good use of government resources. Some major players in the anti-hunger community didn’t even back the idea until recently, the theory being that money should be targeted at those who need it most. Universal free means that any kid, even ones with wealthy parents, can get a free meal, too. It would be a big shift from the means testing that’s been baked into school meal programs (and really most government programs) for as long as anyone can remember. 

Say Republicans who opposed extending universal free meals another year: Look, we were on board with responding to a national emergency, but this was all supposed to be temporary. 

“Congress never intended to provide universal free breakfast and lunches to all K-12 students regardless of need,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., during a floor speech debating the waiver extensions in June, NPR noted recently. (Hat tip to my friend and former colleague Ximena Bustillo for staying on this story.)

As I scooped back in March, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was a major roadblock for this on the Senate side. (My initial tweet about this, by the way, got 7M impressions. Truly bananas.) Thousands of school leaders and a bunch of interest groups tried to change the minds of key Republicans, but it didn’t work. Ultimately, there just wasn’t a political path forward, though lawmakers were able to extend universal access to meals this summer.

A state patchwork emerges: Supporters of universal free continue figuring out ways to expand meals access, either through state legislation or expanded use of what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), an initiative that allows districts with higher proportions of low-income students to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students. Pushing for expanded access, in theory, closes the gap and makes a potential future return to universal free meals seem like less of a leap, at least financially.

California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont have all extended universal free meals in their states through at least this school year. Interesting note here though: Families can still expect to fill out applications in these states because free and reduced price meals – which are all income-based – will still be paid for by the feds. Generally, states are looking to pick up the difference. This could get quite expensive, so it will be interesting to see how long states commit to this.

Here’s a handy map from the Food Research & Action Center to illustrate where the action is happening right now. States in blue have enacted permanent policy. States in orange have found ways to extend universal for at least this school year. 

Pressure building: Several states are running campaigns to press legislatures to go universal  (see the green circles above). It’s possible that these efforts will pick up more steam once schools have a clearer picture of how much money they’ve lost and how many fewer kids they’ve served without the universal free option. Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), said the group is planning to survey schools in November about how they are doing, after they’ve had some time to assess the new normal. 

“It’s a huge loss,” Pratt-Heavner said. “We’ve got a lot of districts that are very concerned.” She noted that one of SNA’s members in Arizona is already reporting that her students have collectively racked up some $8,000 in school meals debt. 

It’s probably a safe bet that we’re going to see the lunch shaming debate pick back up in the coming months.


Vilsack calms nerves about the White House conference

At a school meals press event in Washington this morning, Vilsack addressed concerns from various interest groups that planning for the big White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health, set for Sept. 28, has been slow and short on details.

“I encourage folks not to worry because this is going to be a very robust effort,” Vilsack told reporters. 

The secretary said he has seen a proposed agenda that included a list of those participating. “I can tell you it’s going to be a very busy day, a very packed day, a very long, but very substantive day,” he said.

“I think people are quite serious about coming out of this conference with a roadmap,” he added.

The event included a tour of a scratch-cooked school breakfast operation and a school garden. Vilsack called for expanding access to school lunches and breakfasts and reminded families to fill out any necessary eligibility paperwork so kids don’t miss out on meals.

Endorsing universal? The secretary dodged questions from Food Fix about whether he expected the White House to back universal school meals as part of the government’s overall strategy that will be unveiled. “I don’t want to prejudge the outcome,” he said. 

Speaking of the White House conference: Don’t miss the unofficial Food Fix conference docket. You can read through what more than 50 groups have recommended to the White House ahead of the event.


Food insecurity held steady in 2021, but went down for households with children

USDA’s Economic Research Service delivered some good news this week: Food insecurity rates in the U.S. didn’t increase in 2021, even amid broad economic disruption from the pandemic, holding the trend from 2020.

The topline: The overall rate of household food insecurity in the U.S. was 10.2 percent in 2021, which was not “significantly different” than 2020, when it was estimated to be 10.5 percent. 

Not seeing a spike in food insecurity is surprising for many because we all remember the miles-long lines of cars at food pickup sites in the early months of the pandemic. It felt like the world had been turned upside down, and it had, but few people appreciate just how much aid Washington unleashed in response to this crisis. As I noted on Tuesday, it wasn’t just stimulus checks, but also Child Tax Credit payments, increases in food stamp benefits, Pandemic-EBT … and, yes, universal free school meals. 

“You’ve got to know that free school meals contributed to that,” said Pratt-Heavner, of SNA. “Of course, there were other measures, too.”

Kids rates get better: The rate of food insecurity in 2021 for households with children was 6.2 percent  – or 2.3 million households – down from 7.6 percent in 2020. “These households with food insecurity among children were unable at times to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children,” per USDA. 

Disparities narrowed: Another bit of good news in this report were signs that some racial inequities lessened, albeit only slightly, in 2021. Food insecurity rates declined among Black households, all low-income households and households in the South, per the report. 

The bad news: Food insecurity rates appeared to significantly worsen for adults living alone, especially women, and elderly people living alone. 

Hearing from low-income households: While we’re here, a new survey from Hunger Free America of households making less than $40,000 with children found that the Child Tax Credit payments and the food stamp benefit increases during the pandemic went a long way to not just boost family finances, but mental health, too. Families also reported being able to buy healthier foods. The research, conducted by Kupersmit Research, used an online survey and included 800 individuals. 

The results were unveiled alongside Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in an online presser this week where lawmakers repeatedly referenced the upcoming White House conference and argued that hunger and nutrition interests shouldn’t be at odds. (Brush up on this long-simmering debate in a past edition of Food Fix.)


Why USDA sees local food as a resilience plan

The Agriculture Department on Wednesday announced the availability of $400 million for the creation of regional food business centers aimed at helping underserved areas access more federal resources for local and regional food systems (think: food hubs, farm-to-school and other things that help connect local farmers with consumers). It’s sort of a wonky announcement – and USDA had already said it planned to invest this money – but Vilsack is touting the move as part of a much bigger shift at the department.

If you didn’t catch it, Vilsack in June laid out USDA’s new strategy to “transform” the country’s food system. Bolstering local and regional is part of that. The thinking is that a more diversified food and agriculture system could respond more nimbly to the next big shock – like say a global pandemic or major natural disaster that stresses supply chains or upends growing or processing capacity.

“This is a part of a very, very large initiative that this administration has undertaken to create a more resilient food system, one that builds a stronger and better local and regional food system to complement the more national commodity based system that we have,” Vilsack said in an interview with Food Fix this week. 

“This is a holistic, system wide effort,” Vilsack said.

Political divide fades: The politics on all of this have shifted. I have been around long enough to remember that back when the Obama administration launched Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, an initiative to promote local and regional food (that didn’t have anywhere near this kind of money behind it), Republicans on Capitol Hill threw a fit over it. You just don’t see that kind of blowback anymore.

“We’ve helped to facilitate that change,” Vilsack said, when I asked him about the politics. “We’re seeing consumers want that choice. Consumers are appreciating the community building aspect of a local and regional food system – there’s a hunger for this.”


What I’m reading

White House eliminates potential hurdles for immigrants on public benefits trying to obtain legal status (CNN). As we reported last month, this was expected, but it’s still a big change. The Biden administration finalized a so-called “public charge” rule that walks back changes sought during the Trump administration that dissuaded immigrants from using many government benefits they were eligible for, including food stamps, out of fear it would harm their Green Card applications. Even with this move, there is still a lot of fear and misunderstanding about these policies.

How Abbott kept sick babies from becoming a scandal (New York Times). This deep dive looks at the tactics employed by Abbott Nutrition and its legions of lawyers to beat back lawsuits alleging that the company’s formula sickened, and in some cases severely disabled, infants from cronobacter infections. Though this story mostly looks at old cases, it echoes what I’ve heard from parents and lawyers involved in the current cases facing the company. 

The fight to keep little-known bacteria out of powdered baby formula (Washington Post). I think it’s fair to say formula companies had a very bad PR week. This story also features stories from families who believe their children were disabled from contaminated formula. Both WaPo and NYT note that it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint the source of contamination. It also focuses on how parents aren’t often told much about how to properly handle and serve powdered formula, which is not sterile.

FDA ends Lucky Charms probe despite continued reports of bizarre symptoms (New York Post). The FDA this week said it ended its investigation into hundreds of consumer complaints of illnesses suspected to be linked to Lucky Charms cereal. This whole thing remains so bizarre. We may never know what happened. 

You met him as ‘Corn Kid.’ Now, he’s South Dakota’s ‘Corn-bassador.’ (Washington Post). What a delightful story. Just read it. (And watch the videos.)


Who’s who

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has named Anupama Joshi as vice president for programs. Joshi was previously at Blue Sky Funders Forum where she was executive director.

Sharon Lindan Mayl joined DLA Piper as a partner in its regulatory and government affairs FDA regulatory subgroup. She previously spent more than 25 years at the FDA, most recently as a senior advisor for policy to the Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response at FDA. (Hat tip to the newsletter Politico Influence)


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