More US Students Need Access to Free Meal Programs

For low-income students, school can be the only place where they eat a healthy lunch and consistent meals. To end extreme poverty, we must promote good nutrition and end hunger.
People Impacted
$ 244B
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

The number of after-school meals served to students in the US is slowly increasing, but nutrition advocates say it’s not enough.  More than 1.3 million children in the US benefited from after-school meals and community-based programs in October 2018 alone, though the number of children in need is estimated to be at least double that number.

School districts struggle to provide additional meals, because many families are unable to pay for the lunch plans already established. When families fail to pay, children are often publicly shamed by stamping their hands, being forced to clean up after meals instead of partaking in recess, or being banned from extracurricular activities like sports or drama productions until the past due balance, known as lunch debt, is paid.

Symptoms and Causes

Poor nutrition can lead to poor academic and health outcomes for children. Lack of access or diminished capacities to capitalize on educational environments can continue cycles of poverty.

Hunger disproportionately affects low-income families, and more than 11 million children in the US live in “food insecure” homes, where families don’t have enough food for every family member to be able to lead a healthy life. 

Evidence on Dietary Behaviors and Academic Achievement

Student participation in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) School Breakfast Program (SBP) is associated with:

  • Increased grades and standardized test scores

  • Reduced absenteeism

  • Improved cognitive performance (e.g. memory)

Skipping meals, particularly breakfast, can have the opposite effect on student achievement.

Hunger due to insufficient food intake is associated with:

  • Lower grades

  • Higher rates of absenteeism

  • Repeating a grade

  • Decreased ability to focus

CDC, 'Health and Academic Achievement' -

the impact
Negative Effects

Low-income students already face numerous barriers to academic success that can inhibit generational economic mobility. A diminished learning capacity because of an empty stomach not only prevents students from realizing their achievement potential, but it also exacerbates inequalities in the education system.

Lunch shaming disproportionately affects marginalized families and goes beyond just hurting a student’s self-esteem. Missing meals hinders children’s development and success, effects focus and learning capability, and for many low-income students, lunch might be their only meal of the day.

Economic Impact

No one knows how much school lunch debt exists, but 75% of school districts reported having some amount of meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, according to SNA. For smaller school districts, it was less than $10, whereas other districts have reported upward of $865,000. The average amount of debt a district carried was $2,500.

Success Metrics
  • Schools would no longer be allowed to publicly identify students, whether that be stamping their hands or making them wear a wristband.

  • Schools should be prohibited from stigmatizing students, by preventing them from attending school dances, for example.

  • Schools should not be permitted to force the student to perform chores or activities that the general student body isn’t required to do. 

  • Establishing a standard nationwide about how to effectively address and reduce lunch debt in school districts.

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • School Districts

  • USDA

  • Students

  • Parents

  • Schools

  • Districts

  • Counties

  • State Education Systems

financial insights
Current Funding

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost, or free school meal programs to children each school day. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946

Ideas Description

1) Increase the number of low-income children who are directly certified to receive free school meals without an application.

One child receives an afterschool meal for every 16 low-income children who participated in the National School Lunch Program in October 2018 (FRAC). Allowing children who receive specific federal benefits to be directly certified as free-and-reduced lunch eligible will include more low-income children in free meal programs while reducing the administrative burden faced by schools and districts.

2) Begin finding outside sources of funds that are community-based instead of depending on federal aid.

Because federal aid only covers a certain portion of the meal and labor required to plan the meal, there is a need not being met, leaving a discrepancy. If there was a way to crowdsource funding, or drive fundraising on a more local level for communities more in need, those funds could be directly applied to outstanding debt.

3) Invest in the Community Eligibility Provision to Increase the Number of High-Poverty Schools that can Participate

Schools and districts with two-thirds of their student body eligible to receive free meals are able to implement community eligibility and offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. A reimbursement is determined based on counting the subpopulation of low-income students who are certified to receive free school meals without an application because their household participates in:

  • Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

  • The Food Distribution Program for Indian Reservations (FDPIR)

  • Medicaid (in some states)

Or are:

  • Homeless

  • Migrant

  • In foster care

  • Enrolled in Head Start

(Child Nutrition Reauthorization - FRAC)

4) For States (public health and education agencies)

Create partnerships between departments of health and education and other key stakeholders to help support the connection between healthy eating, physical activity, and academic achievement (CDC).

Data Sources

Global Citizen, 'More US Students Need Access to Free Afterschool Meals: Report' -

Nation Swell, 'Schools are Shaming Kids Who Can't Afford Lunch, But There Are Ways to Stop It' -,only%20meal%20of%20the%20day.

USDA National School Lunch Program -

Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), 'More Can be Done to Feed Hungry Children After School' -

Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), Child Nutrition Reauthorization, Priorities to Improve and Strengthen Child Nutrition Programs -

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 'Health and Academic Achievement' -

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