If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that school children should never go hungry. As parents of children enrolled in New York City public schools know, breakfast and lunch are offered free of charge to all students, no matter their family’s financial circumstances. However, the majority of municipalities in the United States have no such policy. Most American school children do not learn in a school district that offers universal free school lunches. In 2021, Senators Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand and Representatives Ilhan Omar and Gwen Moore introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, a bill that would permanently provide “free meals to all school children regardless of income.” This bill has not moved since being introduced in the House in 2021, leaving many states to pick up where the federal government left off.
Multiple states have begun to provide free school meals to all students, regardless of income, and many more are considering making the move as per proposed legislation.
California has had universal free school meals since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, having used funding from Congress in 2020 to provide free meals to all students even through unexpected school closures. The policy was then made permanent in the 2022-2023 school year. California was the first state in the nation to pass such legislation. Both breakfast and lunch are provided for students in grades K-12 at all public and charter schools, regardless of financial circumstances. The bill also requires that “high poverty schools” adopt a provision that increases access to the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program (which provide reimbursement to schools providing meals to students below a certain income level) while simultaneously reducing paperwork and other administrative burdens at the local level.
Starting in the 2023-2024 school year, Colorado will begin offering public schools the option to provide universal free school breakfasts and lunches to students. Unlike the legislation passed in California and Maine, this policy is not required by all school districts, and was passed via ballot initiative. Participating public schools will be reimbursed for the full cost of all meals provided. The state statute, called Healthy Meals for All Public School Students, also includes language to “provide local food purchasing grants to eligible participating school food authorities; provide funding to participating school food authorities to increase the wages or provide stipends for individuals employed to prepare and serve food; and provide assistance to participating school food authorities through the local school food purchasing technical assistance and education grant program.”
The Illinois House and Senate both passed the Healthy School Meals for All Program to provide universal free school meals to public school students, to be overseen by the State Board of Education. The bill was approved by Governor JB Pritzker on August 11.
Up to $160 million in state funds can be used for free lunch and breakfast for all public school students, regardless of family income. In July 2023, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a state budget that includes funding for universal free school meals for the 2023-2024 school year, which included and additional $25 million in funding for the program.
In March 2023, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed into law a bill providing free breakfast and lunch to students at participating schools, starting during the 2023-2024 school year. Schools that are eligible for meal reimbursement from the State of Minnesota must be participants in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program. Free meals are not extended to additional a la carte items or second helpings.
Public schools in Maine provide free school lunches and breakfasts, as per a bill passed by Maine lawmakers and signed by Governor Janet Mills after pandemic-era federal funding for meals ended. The permanent law took effect in the 2022-2023 school year. The bill also directs the Maine Department of Education to assist school districts in maximizing their federal reimbursement for school meals.
In August 2023, Massachusetts enacted permanent universal free school meals under Governor Maura Healey. This is to be funded by a new 4 percent tax on the state’s wealthiest residents, which was approved by voters in 2022. Twenty-six percent of the state’s public school children are food insecure, and this policy will help to end lunch shaming and improve children’s educational outcomes.
New Mexico was the fifth state to establish universal free school meals with Senate Bill 4 (the “Healthy Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act”), signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in March 2023. The bill was initially introduced by Senators Michael Padilla and Leo Jaramillo introduced in January 2023, after the Governor publicly announced her intention to establish the policy during the 2023 legislative session. Accompanying Senate Bill 4 is increased funding to improve school kitchen infrastructure.
On June 14, 2023, Governor Phil Scott allowed a bill providing universal free school meals to become law, despite opposing it and not signing. Governor Scott opposed the bill because he argued it was unfair to raise taxes to purchase meals for children of wealthy families — the cost of the program will result in a $0.03 increase on the property tax rate. Had Governor Scott chosen to veto the bill, Vermont lawmakers had the support to override the veto.
Many other states are currently planning, drafting, discussing, or negotiating expanded free school meal legislation for the 2023-2024 school year and beyond.
- Arizona allocated more funding to free school meals in December 2022 — while the policy isn’t universal, this increased investment means that more students who previously were not eligible for free meals are now able to receive them.
- Connecticut intended to provide universal free school meals during the 2022-2023 school year, but funding (through the American Rescue Plan) ran out a few months into the year. There are nascent discussions regarding bills in the House and Senate to establish universal free school meals during the 2023 legislative session; however, there have been concerns from the Connecticut General Assembly Appropriations Committee about the cost of such a program.
- In Hawaii, a bill to implement universal free meals at all public and public charter schools starting during the 2023-2024 school year has been introduced in the Hawaii House of Representatives.
- Iowa saw the introduction of SF303, which would require public schools in the state to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, funded through the State Department of Education.
- Louisiana saw the introduction of HB282 by Representative Kyle M. Green, which in its original text, would have provided free school meals to all public school students. However, amended versions of the bill included eligibility requirements for students to receive free meals.
- Maryland saw the introduction bills in the House and Senate permanently establishing universal free school meals during the 2022 legislative session. While the policy is not yet permanent, children in the state will have free meals throughout the 2023-2024 school year.
- Bills in the House and Senate have been introduced in Missouri to “provide each student enrolled in such public school with one free breakfast and one free lunch each day such student attends classes in such public school.”
- A bill was introduced in Montana to “eliminate costs to students for school meals.” However, the Montana Legislature website categorizes the bill as “Probably Dead.”
- In Nebraska, a bill was introduced in 2021 to adopt the “Hunger-Free Schools Act,” which would provide universal free school breakfasts and lunches. However, it was postponed indefinitely in April 2022, and has been introduced again in January 2023.
- Nevada used funding from the American Rescue Plan to provide universal free school meals during the 2022-2023 school year, and has approved additional funding to continue the program into the 2023-2024 school year. There is not yet word of any proposed legislation to make the program permanent.
- New Jersey saw the introduction of a bill that “requires schools to universally provide free meals to all students” in February 2022. While the bill was not passed during the 2022 session, it is likely to be revisited in 2023.
- New York City, Albany, Rochester, and Yonkers are among the municipalities in New York that offer universal free school meals. While a bill was introduced in 2021 to establish universal free school meals, it has been in committee ever since. Community Food Advocates is among those supporting statewide legislation, and the policy is supported by the NY Health Foundation.
- In North Carolina, following the success of the pandemic-era federal policy, bills establishing permanent universal free school meals have been brought to the House and Senate.
- In January 2023, the North Dakota legislative branch saw two bills related to school meals: one to provide universal free school meals at public schools, and another that fights “lunch debt” stigma. The universal free school meal bill failed in March 2023, and the lunch debt bill was passed and signed by Governor Doug Burnum in April 2023.
- The Ohio Board of Education passed a resolution in 2022 recommending that the legislature use funding from the American Rescue Plan to establish universal free school meals. Many activists in Ohio have called on the Ohio Legislature to establish the policy.
- A bill proposed in Oklahoma would raise the income threshold for families to be eligible for free meals. While this would not be a universal policy, it would grant free meals to an additional 151,000 students. However, it has been stalled in the Oklahoma Senate since March 2023.
- In the Oregon House, a bill is currently in committee to establish universal free school meals.
- Pennsylvania is provided universal free school breakfast during the 2022-2023 school year while bills establishing universal free school meals (including lunch) are currently in committee in the House and Senate.
- In Rhode Island, where about 62 percent of school meals are either free or reduced-price, a bill establishing universal free school meals has passed through the state Senate. It next will move to the Rhode Island House of Representatives.
- In South Carolina, a bill requiring that all “eligible” schools provide universal free meals was introduced in January 2023.
- Tennessee saw a first attempt at passing universal free school meals in 2022, but the bill was not passed during the 2022 legislative session. Two more bills have subsequently been introduced in 2023.
- A bill introduced in Virginia would establish universal free meals to elementary and secondary school students while simultaneously rendering obsolete all existing school lunch debt.
- Bills introduced in the Washington State House and Senate would establish universal free school meals have so far gained bipartisan support.
- In Washington, D.C., a bill to implement universal free meals and snacks in public school, public charter schools, and participating private schools students has been introduced to the Council of the District of Columbia. According to the D.C. Food Policy Council, this would cost about $8 million each year.
- In the Wisconsin State Assembly, a bill establishing universal free school meals for both public and private schools was introduced in 2021, but failed to pass in 2022.