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Nov 29, 2021

In this episode we hear from Dr. Amelie Hecht about universal free school meal programs and how the pandemic may have shifted the outlook for this kind of program.

Dr. Hecht is a fellow in the IRP National Poverty Fellows Program where she is in residence at the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation at the federal Administration for Children and Families. 


Dave Chancellor: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor for this episode. We’re going to be talking to Dr Amelie Hecht about universal free school meals and how the pandemic may have shifted the outlook for this kind of program as we look ahead. Dr. Hecht is a fellow in the IRP National Poverty Fellows program, where she’s in residence at the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation at the Federal Administration for Children and Families. She completed her Ph.D. in Health Policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2020. And we’re just really grateful to be able to talk to her about this. Let’s turn to my interview with Dr. Hecht.

Chancellor: You wrote your dissertation on Universal Free School Meals, and this has become a big thing, especially kind of since the start of the pandemic. And just to make sure we’re thinking about this in the right way, could you explain how a universal free school meal set up is different from what we might think of as a traditional school meal funding?

Amelie Hecht: Yeah, absolutely. So traditionally, the school meal program is in part a means tested program. And what that means is that under the traditional school meal reimbursement model, families complete an annual application with information about their household income, and kids are then eligible to receive a free meal if their family’s household income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s about an annual income of thirty-four thousand dollars for a family of four, and then a child can also receive a reduced price meal, which means they pay about 40 cents for lunch if their household income is between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and eighty five percent of the federal poverty level. And then, of course, any other student didn’t qualify for free or reduced price. Meals can also buy a meal, which cost somewhere around a dollar, fifty for breakfast and 250 for lunch, so still relatively low cost. But a school that offers universal free meals offers free meals to all students, regardless of their household income. So those schools no longer collect individual household application forms. All students just get free meals, and in most schools in the U.S., they offer universal free meals through a federal provision called the Community Eligibility Provision. And that’s a provision that’s available to schools in high poverty areas.

Chancellor: The timing of you finishing your dissertation coincided really closely with the start of the pandemic back in early 2020. And I guess out of necessity, this was kind of a sea change when it came to universal free school meals because they have this rate. Basically, the USDA gave school districts a waiver that allowed them to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students. Is that right? Can you tell us about this?

Hecht: Yeah, that’s exactly right. So, prior to the pandemic, it was mostly just these schools in high poverty areas that were offering these universal free meals through that provision that I mentioned, for the most part, the community eligibility provision. But when the pandemic began, Congress recognized that schools needed more flexibility to ensure kids were getting fed and that the need for school meals was really increasing dramatically because people were losing their jobs and facing other economic hardship. Congress authorized the USDA, the US Department of Agriculture, to issue these nationwide waivers that allowed schools to serve universal free meals to all students. And that authority has been extended through the end of the current academic year, which is June of 2022. And that waiver has been really hugely helpful to schools and families. It’s meant that schools most schools in the US have been serving free meals to all kids, which is really important at a time when families are facing hard economic times and also schools are facing hard economic times.

Chancellor: As a parent, this program was actually really valuable to my family, especially during the months when my kids were doing remote schooling. Our district encouraged parents to sign up for lunch pickup, and honestly, it better lives measurably better. During that time, we were saving money. There was a steady supply of pretty healthy food coming into our house, and it was just a significant time savings for my wife and I as we were both working. Is this kind of what you’ve heard elsewhere?

Hecht: Yeah, I think I think what you’re saying is what we are hearing from families all across the country. We know that the free meals help kids in and families in all kinds of ways. It saves families money. It saves families time not having to pack those school meals. And we also know that school meals are on average healthier than the meals that kids pack at home and bring to school anyway. So, it makes sure that kids are eating relatively healthy meals for the most part. And it also really helps a lot of those families that are right on that line, the families who don’t qualify necessarily for free or reduced-price meals, but still sometimes find it hard to afford groceries from week to week or may have lost jobs because of the pandemic. So, I think it’s been hugely helpful to families across the country.

Chancellor: But you’ve been studying Universal Free School meals since well before the pandemic. And you know, in your research, what are some of the areas you’ve looked at to understand, I guess, the impact of universal free school meals or just how these programs work?

Hecht: Yeah, so I’ve done research, both looking at the implementation of universal preschool meal policies and their impacts on students and some of the research that I’ve done looking at impacts just looks across the sort of the whole body of literature that’s been produced so far on universal free meals. And so, you know, looking across that body of literature in the U.S., we see that universal free meals have a lot of benefits for families, for students, for schools. You know, first, we know that universal free meals really achieve their primary goal, which is increasing meal participation rates. More kids are eating school meals. We also see improvements in academic performance, which is not really surprising because we know kids do better in school when they don’t come to school, hungry when they’re not hungry in class and during test times. And we also see some improvement in diet quality. And that’s likely because school meals, as I said before, are healthier on average than the meals that kids pack at home and bring to school. And really importantly, we actually see benefits for kids who qualify for free and reduced-price meals before. But we also see improvements for kids who didn’t qualify, who are above those income thresholds before, but are now participating in school meals. And then, in addition to helping kids, universal free meals have a lot of benefits for schools. They help reduce the administrative burden that schools face. Schools no longer need to process those meal application forms that I was talking about. They don’t need to track families or kids down to make sure that they fill out those forms, and they also don’t have to track student lunch charges or unpaid meal debt. And we know that was a really hot topic in the past few years. You know, it’s the idea that when kids don’t have enough money to afford the school meal, that the school will either provide them a cold cheese sandwich or they’ll send them home with a letter that says that they need to pay their meal debts. And, you know, schools are no longer responsible for doing that because all the kids are getting their free meals. I did interviews with food service staff at schools offering universal free meals in Maryland, and they really highlighted for me how that change that elimination of school meal debt and meal training really improved staff morale among food service staff because they no longer needed to track kids down or not give kids the hot meal. They also talked about how it reduced financial stress for parents and it reduced student stigma because all the kids were now eating the school meal, not just not just the students who were singled out for being low income and needing to rely on that school meals. So, a lot of benefits across the board.

Chancellor: So, you know, I mentioned earlier that we had received outreach from our kids’ school district about this program, encouraging us to sign up, and they were kind of really direct in their messaging. They said, you know, please sign up even if you’re not struggling to pay for meals. If more families sign up, our cost per meal will be lower and we can offer better quality food. And I think they’re kind of a couple of things going on here. But you know, one, I know you’ve written about how messaging and communication with parents and students can be important in these programs. So, what can you tell us about that?

Hecht: Yeah, I think getting parents on board with these programs is really important to their success. Schools that serve universal free meals want to encourage as many kids to participate as possible because it does reduce the cost of producing meals per student. A lot of their production costs are fixed costs, and so the more kids that participate, the lower per meal cost it is for the school. So, they really do want as many kids to participate as possible. And so, getting families and parents on board is important. I think some ways that schools have been successful in communicating to parents is sharing at back-to-school nights, sharing through letters to parents and sharing at school board meetings as well, and communicating the benefits to parents of participating in this formula. Sort of all the things I talked about earlier that improved academic performance, sometimes better attendance rates. Other on-time grade promotion. Other outcomes like that. So, I think that’s been hugely helpful to families. And I think one important thing that we’re dealing with right now is that a lot of schools are asking families to fill out what are called alternative income forms. These are forms where families share information on their household income, and they’re really important because they give schools this critical data that that schools then use to apply for and receive funds. Is from the federal government, from the state government and also private foundations and other grant making bodies, and historically schools got it on household income from those free and reduced-price meal applications, and they used that date, as I said, to apply for different funding. But with universal free meal programs in place, they no longer collect those free and reduced-price meal applications. And they’re now needing to ask families to fill out these alternative income forms. And it can be challenging for schools to get good data from those forms because parents have less incentive to fill out those forms because they aren’t directly linked to whether or not their kids get a free meal. But those forms are really important for schools to get other kinds of funding to provide high quality education for students. So, schools are really working hard to communicate the importance of filling out those forms to parents. And I guess I’ll also call to action to parents to please fill out those forms. If you’re asked because those forms are so important for your families, for your kids to get high quality funding for her education program.

Chancellor: It seems like there’s been some traction for continued universal free school meals nationwide or at least across more districts beyond the expiration of the current USDA waivers. And you know, I know in the last few months a few states have passed their own Universal Free School meal programs, and New York City, if I’m right, has had a universal free school meals for a few years now. So, you know, what do you see going forward? What do you kind of looking at here?

Hecht: Yeah, this is really exciting for me and for other researchers and advocates and policymakers in this space. The pandemic, I think, is really highlighted the importance of school meals for kids. And now that schools have been offering universal free meals for two years, it’s going to be really hard for schools to go back at the end of the year and take that away from families at the state level. Yeah. Both Maine and California have passed laws authorizing universal free meals starting next school year. And at the federal level, there has been some discussion about national universal free meal programs or at least expanding the community eligibility provision. That provision that I mentioned earlier that authorizes universal free meals for schools in high poverty areas. And you have we’re seeing a big policy shift here, this policy window to get these things passed, and I’m actually just starting a new policy analysis study where we’re going to actually look very closely at Maine and California to try and understand what the critical ingredients were that allowed them to get those state policies passed. And we’re going to try and tease out lessons that advocates and other policymakers in other states and maybe a federal level can use to pass similar legislation elsewhere. I think universal free milk programs are here to stay in some way or another because of what the pandemic has done in highlighting for us that the importance of school meals.

Chancellor: I so appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about this. You know, I learned a lot and I’m just really grateful for this interview.

Hecht: Thanks so much for the opportunity. It was great to discuss this.

Chancellor: Thanks again to Amelie Hecht for taking the time to talk to us. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office, any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Martin de Boer. Thanks for listening.