Could DC make school lunch free for everyone?

A large brick school sits across the street.

Powell Elementary School is a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) school in Ward 4. CEP schools provide free breakfast and lunch to enrolled students. Photo by Neal Franklin

Carina Gervacio’s 4-year-old son likes bananas, but everything else is a guess. Even after trying pizza or chicken nuggets, she can strike out. When that happens, she feels better about sending her son to school on an empty stomach because come lunchtime, the school will make sure he gets a meal — for free.

“In those moments every parent, every family, every caregiver, deserves the safety net of knowing like, ‘Hey I didn’t get breakfast right, for whatever reason,’” Gervacio said. “‘I didn’t get lunch right. I didn’t get the perfect thing that my kid is going to eat because kids are really unpredictable sometimes, but I know that school is there.’”

Gervacio’s son, like many other D.C. kids in low-income areas, receives free school meals. For Gervacio, this offers peace of mind her son will eat during the school day, even if he refuses his breakfast. For others, school breakfasts and lunches provide an essential resource for students and their families, combating childhood hunger and helping kids stay focused during the day. But despite broad support to expand free lunch programs in D.C., a proposed bill that would ensure every D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) student has access to school lunch is unlikely to pass the D.C. Council as budgetary restrictions press the city to limit spending.

DCPS students already receive free breakfast as well as supper and snacks at applicable schools, according to the DCPS website. And Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) schools, like Powell Elementary School where Gervacio’s son attends, also serve lunch at no cost to all enrolled students, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which administers federal school lunch programs.

The Universal Free School Meals Amendment Act of 2023 would essentially build on that program and provide access to free school breakfasts, lunches, and afterschool snacks for students in all public, charter, and private schools that choose to participate in the National School Lunch Program, making school meals universally free for district students.

According to DCPS enrollment data, the school district has 116 public schools. Free lunches are only universally available in 96 CEP schools. Students who attend other public schools can apply to receive free lunches or through the federal Free and Reduced Meals, or FARM, program. Charter and private schools are also eligible for the FARM program. In 2019, over 75% of charter school students participated in the program, according to a D.C. Hunger Solutions report.

School meal programs are linked to better test performances, fewer disciplinary problems, and a better diet according tothe report. About a fourth of D.C. households with children reported having insufficient food in 2020, according to a D.C. Food Policy report. Although many students are already receiving free school meals through existing programs, not every student has access to these benefits.

The bill, introduced by At-large Councilmember Christina Henderson, is supported by nine members of the thirteen-member council who helped introduce or sponsor the bill. In the bill’s introduction, Henderson detailed the benefits D.C. residents already receiving free and reduced meals would get if the bill were enacted.

“The first would be that some families would no longer have to pay anything at all for receiving reduced-price lunches,” Henderson wrote. “The second being that concerns around the stigma associated with receiving this benefit would no longer be an issue.

Despite these benefits, the bill doesn’t have a funding source, Henderson’s office confirmed in a statement in early May.

National expansions in free lunch programs have shown students and families take advantage when schools offer free meals.

During part of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government offered free lunches year-round through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option. However, the option is typically only available during the summer, according to a 2021 USDA press release. The year-round option was only extended until June 30, 2022.

As a result of the National School Lunch Program temporary expansion, FNS provided 2.2 billion meals in 2021, and 4.9 billion in 2022, Diana Limbacher, deputy regional administrator for the USDA’s FNS mid-Atlantic region, wrote in an email. In both years, almost all of the meals were served free or for a reduced price. In 2020, 3.2 billion meals were provided without the expansion, but only about 77% were free or reduced price.

The 2021 and 2022 increases in the rate of students served at free or reduced price are partially because the USDA pandemic waiver offered free-of-charge meals to all students, Limbacher wrote.

“When all students have access to healthy school meals at no cost, more children are fueled for learning and development,” she added. “Nutritious school meals and quality education go hand-in-hand. We know that hungry kids cannot learn and are at risk for diet-related diseases.”

Local students have also come out in support of the proposed D.C. program.

Zoe Fisher, a 17-year-old student at the School Without Walls and part of the DCPS Green New Deal for Schools Initiative, testified about the importance of universal free school meals for students in a November public hearing on the local bill.

Fisher told Street Sense students at her D.C. middle school had a stigma against eating lunches from school instead of from home, which she thought prevented people from taking advantage of free and reduced lunch programs.

“The lunch line I think was shorter than it could have been because kids didn’t want to face ridicule or judgment when they come back to the table and they’re eating something different from everyone else,” Fisher said.

Fisher hopes if school lunch is available to everyone, that judgment will fade. Lunchroom stigma had a measurable impact in a 2023 U.S. Census Bureau working paper where the implementation of free lunches caused suspensions to decline. The paper links different access to meals with separation and discipline issues. Free school meals improve perceptions of the school climate, according to the paper.

“I know that the next step for [the act] is finding the funding and that this year the budget couldn’t be tighter,” Fisher said. “And like, really using strong language to convince those in power that it needs the funding now is going to be very important.”

The bill would cost D.C. about $8 million a year in additional funding, according to a 2022 D.C. Food Policy Council report. Most of the funding for universal free school meals — over 80% — comes from existing federal and local meal reimbursement programs, keeping the price tag relatively low. However, the DCPS budget for the 2025 fiscal year is already tight, according to a February press release by DCPS.

The D.C. Policy Center found the school district will need $615 million in one-time funds to maintain the same level of spending in the coming year as in 2024. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget would increase DCPS’s budget by 16% from the 2024 fiscal year, but could still force the district to eliminate up to 200 positions, according to the Washington Post. Existing meal programs could also be at risk, DCPS Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said, if the council decides to move money away from the DCPS central office to individual schools.

“We are heading into the most difficult budget season since the Great Recession,” Bowser said in the February press release. “Federal relief funds are ending, our personnel and operational costs are higher, and commercial property tax collections are lower. We know that even as we increase our local investments in public education, our schools will still feel the impacts of rightsizing.”

On May 3, the council hosted a public hearing on the budget. Residents and advocates testified that many social service programs were at risk of losing funding, a refrain several councilmembers have echoed throughout the budget process. “Another thing that is important — is critical, a third leg of the stool — is supporting opportunity and supporting the safety net, and I don’t think that this budget has done those things, and we in the council are going to need to do that,” Ward 3 Councilmember Matthew Frumin said.

The councilmember acknowledged residents at the hearing advocating for pay equity and called it a classic pathway to the middle class. More than 300 people registered to testify, calling for increased funding for other programs affecting families including teacher pay equity, childcare, and funding for domestic violence prevention.

Even if efforts stall in D.C., free school lunch is now on the table nationally. Starting this summer, states will have the option to provide summer benefits to help families of eligible children purchase food when there is no school in the summer to provide meals, Limbacher wrote. Many states are now developing more permanent free school meal plans after USDA’s COVID-19 support waivers expired.

For instance, free school breakfasts and lunches are still available because of a new Meals at No Charge program in Maine, said Director of Child Nutrition in the Maine Department of Education Jane McLucas.

“I don’t know if it played into the decision, but it really made it easier to come back from the pandemic knowing that the meals were free for kids and that could continue,” McLucas said.

Maine is listed in the introduction of the D.C. bill, along with California and Colorado, as having similar plans to the one D.C. could implement.

“I keep reminding people all the time we are very lucky to be in Maine because there’s a lot of things happening out there in states that don’t have this wonderful program,” McLucas said.

There are eight states, including Maine, with universal free meals for the 2023-24 school year and another 25 states, in addition to D.C., where legislation has been introduced, according to the Food Research and Action Center. The programs are meant to benefit students but also affect the communities they live in.

“We hope that every student takes advantage of the plan that supports the students, supports the families and the schools can then use money to buy local foods, and it supports the economics of the town and the state as well,” McLucas said.

Issues |DC Budget|Education|Hunger|Youth

Region |Washington DC

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