Hunger affects one in eight children in Connecticut. We have an opportunity to change that by supporting the provision of universal school meals for all students.
The School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program are available in nearly all districts and provide meals that meet strong nutrition standards. Most people know that these meals are available at no cost for low-income families. However, most people don’t know a family of four must have a pre-tax income of no more than $36,075 to qualify for free meals and no more than $51,338 to qualify for reduced-cost meals.
Compare those numbers to $90,660, which is the average estimated cost of living for a family of four in Connecticut. That gap is significant. Too many families in our state earn little to cover expenses – but too much to receive school meals at no cost.
The Connecticut legislature has recently voted to provide free school meals for all children through the current school year and is considering ways to maintain this policy. Why now? The reason is that the national waiver that allowed school meals to be provided at no cost from the spring of 2020 until the fall of 2022 provided an opportunity for everyone to experience the benefits of this policy. As a result, Vermont, Maine, California, and Massachusetts have already decided to continue providing universal school meals in their states and this policy is under consideration now in 15 additional states including South Dakota, Nebraska, South Carolina, Montana, and Missouri.
For years, researchers – including our group at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health – have been studying the impact of providing healthy school meals for all. Here is what we’ve learned:
- More children eat school meals. This is good news for two reasons. First, the stigma that is sometimes associated with school meals is lessened because everyone is eating them. Second, in the U.S., school meals provide more nutrition than other sources of a child’s diet. That is because breakfasts and lunches are required by law to meet specific nutrition standards, such as including a fruit or a vegetable. So, as school meal consumption goes up, diet quality also goes up.
- Families have more money to spend on food for home or other necessities. Some studies have found that rates of food insecurity among households go down when parents can count on schools to provide breakfast and lunch five days a week. As noted above, the cost of living in Connecticut is significantly higher than the cut-off for free or reduced meals, so this will help those families worry less about feeding their children.
- When children are fed, they are ready to learn. When universal school meals are provided, attendance improves; teachers report an increase in student readiness to learn; and studies have even documented improvements in math and language arts test scores.
In our public schools, we collectively pay for buses, books, computers, gym equipment, and more because that is what all students need in order to learn. We don’t distinguish by income and provide free bus rides to some students while other families have to pay. We value the equitable distribution of these resources to all students.
Students should not have to worry about being hungry at school. Food is just as important as all of these other school resources – so it should be treated like any other element of our school system that is designed to maximize student achievement, health, and success.
Brooke Bennett, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health. Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D. is the Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Health, Professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Connecticut and a member of the CT Scholars Strategy Network.