By Marian Wright Edelman
I didn’t make this world for you.
You didn’t buy any stock in my railroad.
You didn’t invest in my corporation.
Where are your shares in standard oil?
I made the world for the rich
And the will-be-rich
And the have-always-been-rich.
Not for you,
— Langston Hughes, “God to Hungry Child”
No child chooses to go to bed and wake up and go to school hungry. As students across the country begin a new school year, children in California are returning to some very good news: California is now the first state to provide free school meals to all students. This means every child in California will now have a better chance at the healthy start and head start all children deserve. It is a shining example of moral leadership to end child poverty, and other states must follow suit before nationwide child nutrition waivers expire.
Child nutrition programs help our nation’s children get the food they need to learn, grow and thrive, especially children in low-income households. The largest programs, the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, provide nutritionally balanced, free and low-cost meals to millions of children each day at school. But the long-standing problems of limited access, low reimbursements, lunch debt, and the stigmatization of children having to prove they are hungry and worthy of meals means millions of children lose out.
Enter universal school meals — an intervention we know works. Research shows access to universal school meals boosts students’ attendance and improves academic performance and health outcomes. Providing healthy school meals for all children eliminates stigma associated with school meals and practices like “lunch shaming,” using embarrassing public reminders or tactics like giving children cold bread and cheese instead of a hot meal when their lunch accounts are low. Universal school meals are also an essential way to reduce longstanding and widening racial disparities in nutrition, health and education.
Black and Latinx children are more than two times as likely as white children to live in households without enough to eat, and nearly 1 in 3 Black children and 1 in 4 Latinx children lack access to healthy food. When it comes to access to school meals, too many children of color live close to the edge: 10.8 million children live in households with incomes between 130% and 200% of the poverty line, earning too much to qualify for free school meals but too little to get by, and nearly 60% of children just above the cutoff for free school meals are children of color. This makes universal school meals essential for advancing racial equity.
During the pandemic, Congress took action to expand nutrition programs to help keep children fed, including expanding federal school nutrition programs to allow schools to serve free meals to all students regardless of age, income or zip code. Just before the program was set to expire in June, President Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act to continue some of these federal protections through this school year. That was welcome news for now for some children — but all children in every state need to know they will have permanent access to school meals. Last minute extensions can be great when students need more time on a paper or project, but no child should have to depend on one to know whether she’ll be able to eat lunch. Now that access to universal meals is no longer guaranteed, millions of children on the edge will once again be left out.
We cannot afford to go backward and take meals away from our children. California is leading the way, but it shouldn’t stand alone. Congress can — and must — create a permanent solution to ensure access to universal school meals for all children across our nation. Children everywhere deserve the same healthy start.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.