By Bryce Covert, Guest Columnist, The New York Times, Dec. 27, 2022.
Ms. Covert is a journalist who focuses on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families.
The 117th Congress has finished its work, with little to offer American children. Lawmakers were unable to muster a deal to combine an extension of last year’s expanded child tax credit with tax breaks for businesses. No one even seemed to remember that up until this summer, the nation had given all children free meals at school.
The emergency created by the pandemic proved that we could stave off child hunger and deprivation if the government acted. Those two programs ensured that even during one of the most acute economic disruptions, children had enough to eat. But we could have ended child hunger before the crisis even began.
Long before anyone had heard of Covid, Lynnea Hawkins relied on free school meals for her son. He lived in northern Maine with his father, who often didn’t have enough money, and there were times when her son called to tell her, “Mom, there’s no food in the house,” she told me when I interviewed her for Early Learning Nation. Knowing he would at least get breakfast and lunch at school at no cost “took a little of the stress off.”
But it was a burden on her son, who had to hand the paperwork proving that his family qualified to his teacher in front of all of his classmates. Being on free school lunch was “another thing for them to torment him with,” Ms. Hawkins said. That stigma melted away after Congress passed legislation in early 2020 allowing the Department of Agriculture to issue waivers giving schools the ability to give free meals to all students, regardless of income. Suddenly, for two years, nearly all children in America could get free school breakfast and lunch, no matter their family’s income.
Congress twice extended those waivers on a bipartisan basis. But then in June, at the behest of Senator Rand Paul and Republican colleagues of his who believed they were no longer necessary, Congress opted to terminate them at the end of the summer, sending the country’s schoolchildren back into classrooms without universal access to free meals.
The rescission of this program coincided with another congressional failure. In 2021 nearly every Democrat and no Republicans voted through a revamping and expansion of the existing child tax credit — which meant more families qualified and they received more money. It also arrived monthly rather than once yearly at tax time. The extra money allowed parents to buy more food, and more were able to keep their children fed. But it expired at the end of last year, and lawmakers have been unable to revive it.
The result of Congress’s actions, or lack thereof, is predictable but tragic: American children, living in one of the wealthiest nations in human history, are going hungry.
Eleni Towns, an associate director at No Kid Hungry, has talked to hundreds of school district leaders, nutrition program directors and school nutrition staff members over the past year about the impact of universal free meals. The most important result they highlighted for her was that children finally received meals who didn’t qualify before the pandemic because their families made too much money — families that couldn’t afford to pay the reduced fee “but also aren’t having adequate meals every single day,” she said.
A family of three must earn less than $29,940 to enroll, and if it earns more than $42,606, it can’t get reduced-price meals, either, and will face the full cost. “The eligibility for free school meals is too low, and it leaves many families who need access to free school meals out,” Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, told me. Before the pandemic, more than 20 percent of families with children who were food insecure didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Including these children in school meals “has been huge and meaningful,” Ms. Towns said. In a survey of 62 large school districts, 95 percent said universal free meals had reduced student hunger. “One of the easiest things to do is to feed any child who asks for a meal,” Ms. FitzSimons said. “It reduces paperwork and administration and ensures kids are getting access to meals.”
“We’ve had this strange test case within the context of the pandemic,” Ms. Towns said. “We’ve shown that it works.”
Now with the universal program gone, parents are back to applying for free or reduced-price meals, and many struggle with the paperwork, forget, refuse because of the stigma or simply don’t know they have to apply, especially if their children started school when the requirement was waived. Soon after school started, Ms. Towns was already hearing from districts that were seeing enrollment drop.
Schools are also now back in the business of adjudicating which families qualify for free meals and which ones have to pay reduced or full price. Doing outreach to parents and working through all of that paperwork consumes significant resources. Some families also can’t afford to or forget to pay what they owe, racking up school lunch debts that weigh on districts and can deny their children meals. In late September, Ms. FitzSimons said, her organization had already started hearing that the debt was piling up.
The loss of free meals hit the same year that the expanded child tax credit disappeared. Under 2021’s expanded version, qualifying families received $300 a month for children under age 6 and $250 a month for older ones, and the credit was made fully refundable so that low-income families with little to no earnings also got it. While the money was used for many things, food was consistently the top category.
The ensuing impact on hunger was profound. As soon as the first payments went out, food insufficiency for adults with children in their households dropped 3 percentage points. There was no similar change for those without children who didn’t get the money. The payments reduced food insufficiency for families with children by 19 percent. Monthly child poverty was reduced by 30 percent.
But those payments ended a year ago. The child poverty rate shot up immediately between December 2021 and January 2022, rising 41 percent and reaching the highest rate since the end of 2020. Food hardship for families with children rose by as much as 12.5 percent.
Despite millions of people losing their employment and income in the pandemic, food insecurity managed to stay steady in 2020 and 2021. Food hardship for families with children actually fell last year. “When we have investments in the right programs at the right time, we can cut down, and we can end child hunger,” Ms. Towns said. “Right now, unfortunately, we’re taking away all of those benefits that have proven to work.”
The value of preventing children from starving should be clear in and of itself. But there’s plenty of research proving that it’s one of the best investments we can make. School meals have been shown to improve students’ school attendance rates, their behavior and their academic achievement. Kids who don’t get adequate meals are more likely to get stomachaches and headaches, interrupting their learning. Giving families more money when their children are young, along the lines of the expanded child tax credit, has been linked to everything from fewer infant deaths to higher graduation rates to more employment and higher incomes later in life.
Congressional lawmakers were unable to craft a deal to reinstate the expanded child tax credit before the end of the year, leaving to go home for the holidays without offering hungry children relief. It should be a top bipartisan priority when they convene next year. Bipartisan action can be hard to muster, but there are some Republican legislators who support a bigger credit. America’s children are waiting.
Reinstating universal free school meals is not on Congress’s radar. But states are taking up the fight. Lawmakers in California and Maine made universal free school meals permanent, and in November voters passed a ballot measure doing the same in Colorado. Massachusetts, Nevada and Vermont extended them for a year. When Congress is ready to listen, these states will help make the case that all children deserve free meals at school.
Ms. Hawkins, the mother in Maine, is among the lucky few. She has neighbors who have incomes that would have put them just dollars above the free meal limit. Thanks to their state lawmakers, they can still count on no-cost school meals for all of their children. But she knows what it’s like to go hungry and to feel the stress of not having enough food to feed her son.
“I can’t imagine who would think it’s OK to take food away from kids,” she said.