District lawmakers are considering a bill to provide free school breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks to all students attending public, public charter and participating private schools regardless of their family’s income level.
Councilmember Christina Henderson introduced the Universal Free School Meals Act of 2023 on Jan. 17. It follows the expiration of a federal pandemic-era policy issued by the U.S. Agriculture Department that distributed meal waivers to schools to provide students with free meals.
“The research on the benefits of having access to nutritional school meals is very clear. Food insecurity among children not only has developmental and behavioral implications, but academic ones as well. No student in the District should face a barrier to access to breakfast and lunch at school,” Councilmember Henderson said in a press release.
As food costs continue to rise, this proposed legislation is meant to ease the financial burden for both families and schools. About three-quarters of students in the District qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Similar programs have been implemented in Colorado, California and Maine, and several other states are considering legislation. Students already eat breakfast for free through meal programs already in place in the District.
The program’s implementation would cost approximately $8 million annually, according to the D.C. Food Policy Council.
If passed, the bill would be essential in ending the stigma around food insecurity among students, said LaMonika Jones, the interim director of the advocacy group D.C. Hunger Solutions. In her observations as a high school teacher, students don’t want their classmates to know they qualify for free or reduced lunch, so oftentimes children will skip meals at school to avoid suspicions.
“Even though they’re hungry, even though they have access to a school meal at a reduced rate or free rate, they choose not to participate because they don’t want anyone to know that they reside in a household that is … low income,” Jones said.