Healthy School Meals for All means offering meals to all students, regardless of their household income, for free as part of the school day so they can learn and thrive. Healthy School Meals for All supports student well-being, reduces administrative costs, increases investment in food service programs, eliminates unpaid meal debt, removes the stigma from the lunchroom, and increases equity in our schools.
The pandemic taught us many important lessons – and with school meals, we learned there is a better way to provide vital nutrition to our children. During the pandemic (March 2020 – June 2022), the USDA provided funding for schools to offer meals free of charge to all students. This effectively served as a successful trial run of a Healthy School Meals for All policy. Regrettably, the federal pandemic waivers expired prior to the start of the current school year and, once again, school meal programs must operate under a tiered payment system of free, reduced-price, or full-price meals depending on family income eligibility.
With continued inaction at the federal level, it is time for Rhode Island to lead and ensure our children are hunger-free and ready to learn. Maine and California have already enacted legislation making Healthy School Meals for All permanent. In the recent election, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to provide free meals for all public school students. Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, and Nevada approved a one-year extension for the 23-24 school year and many other states are working on permanent legislation. Serving school meals to all students at no cost on a permanent basis would be a game-changer for students, families, and schools in our state.
Children and teens cannot learn on an empty stomach. Sadly, many students who need a nutritious breakfast and lunch at school do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Food insecurity is at an all-time high in our state. According to the RI Community Food Bank, nearly one in three households in Rhode Island are food insecure, meaning they struggle to afford adequate food. The RI Life Index identified 41 percent of households with children as food insecure in 2022, as compared to 25 percent in 2021. This crisis has health, educational, and economic consequences, leaving children particularly vulnerable to the long-term impact. Food insecurity can lead to various negative health conditions, including diet-related disease, and has severe consequences on a child’s future health.
Healthy School Meals for All will benefit thousands of students each day and be a significant step forward in eliminating health inequities. Let’s pay for good nutrition now instead of poor outcomes later.
School meals are an integral part of the school day and a contributor to student success, and should be no different than textbooks, technology, transportation, access to school nurses, and other services provided to all students without cost.