More Midwest states are offering universal free lunch to students — while others consider it

Sept. 14, 2023, 3 p.m. ·

Two young girls stand in a school cafeteria, with trays of food in front of them.
Students at Central Elementary in the Amboy school district in northern Illinois gather for lunch. The district is able to offer all of its students free meals through the federal Community Eligibility Provision, but school officials say they often lose money on the program. Illinois lawmakers will consider this fall whether to put more funding toward free meals in the state. (Photo courtesy of Amboy Community Unit School District)

Students are back in the classroom — and school breakfast and lunch are now free in several states.

Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado are among six states implementing universal free lunch this year, while several other Midwestern states are taking more gradual steps to expand food access to students. It’s a shift that’s occurring across the country, after students, parents and school districts became accustomed to free school meals during the COVID pandemic.

Carrie Link is the child nutrition supervisor at the Colorado Department of Education. She says when the federal waivers ended last June, participation plummeted.

“In the 2021-22 school year, schools in Colorado served a little over 100 million meals with nationwide waivers,” she said. “Last school year, when things went back to normal, we saw a drop in meals to about 76 million.”

Last fall, Colorado voters approved the “Healthy School Meals for All” program, and Link expects the number of meals to rebound to pandemic-era levels.

In Minnesota, districts already are reporting a 15% increase in meal participation compared to last year after implementing a universal free lunch program at the start of the year.

Emily Honer, director of nutrition programs services at the Minnesota Department of Education, said while it’s early in the school year, there’s been a clear impact.

“That really showed us how necessary this program is,” she said. “When we were able to provide the meals for free, students came and students ate the meals because they needed it.”

Families nationwide have racked up nearly $20 million in school meal debt since universal free lunch ended, a report found. That doesn’t surprise Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research and Action Center.

“School meal debt came back with a vengeance last school year. And it's because families didn't realize they needed to pay, they didn't realize they needed to fill out a school meal application,” she said.

The end of the program also coincided with food inflation and higher housing costs, squeezing families further.

“There is so much pressure on families to make ends meet,” FitzSimons said.

‘We can’t afford it’

School districts in many parts of the country struggle to offer free meals, even though many of their students qualify for free or reduced lunches under federal rules.

The entire rural school district of Amboy, Illinois, is eligible for free meals through the federal Community Eligibility Provision. That’s because over 40% of families in the small northern Illinois district use federal assistance programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Yet, the district expects it will lose money by taking part in the federal program, said Human Resources Director Amy Wittenauer.

“We can reevaluate it at the end of the year and say, ‘We're just losing too much. We can't afford it,’” she said.

Illinois lawmakers are considering whether to pour more money to support districts like Amboy, after passing “Free School Meals for All” last spring.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Maurice West, a Democrat from Rockford, said this fall he’s hoping his fellow lawmakers will increase support for the program from $9 million annually to $120 million.

“We were spoiled during COVID when it came to funding coming into our states,” West said. “Now we're trying to keep up with the programs we started that we see are working. It's just time for us to reprioritize our funding as a state (for) what's best for our communities.”

More states are addressing the funding shortage for school meal assistance.

An aerial picture of a child holding a sandwich over a school lunch tray.
A student at Oakville Elementary School in Missouri eats his lunch. Several states have passed legislation to provided universal free lunch, including Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado. Missouri considered legislation to do the same this year, but the measures did not make it out of committee. (Photo by Brian Munoz, St. Louis Public Radio)

In Ohio and North Dakota, new state funding will expand reimbursements for schools to cover the cost of free and reduced-price meals. Similar legislation to expand reimbursements or fund universal free lunch altogether were introduced this year in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.

Critics of statewide free programs say they pay for meals that some families can already afford, while individual students can receive free meals through the National School Lunch Program. Students qualify if their family income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level. They can also qualify for reduced-price meals if their family earns less than 180% of the poverty level.

But advocates say the benefits of statewide free lunch programs far outweigh the costs.

FitzSimons, with the Food Research and Action Center, said nationally, only 67.5% of school districts eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision participate. In states like Iowa and Nebraska, the percentage is significantly lower.

She said there remains a stigma about receiving free school meals.

“We see participation go down as kids get older. Offering free meals to all students really gets rid of that (idea) that the school lunch line is only for low-income kids,” FitzSimons said. “And so we see an increase in participation across the board.”

How to pay for free lunch

In Colorado, fewer students will go hungry because of the state’s efforts, according to Link, the education department’s nutrition director.

To offset the program’s $100 million annual cost, Colorado is dedicating particular funds to pay for free school meals. Its “Healthy School Meals for All” program is funded partially by limiting tax deductions for the state’s wealthiest residents.

Link said they also plan to expand over the next few years so schools can use more local produce.

“This legislation also supports local farmers, creates advisory councils to get school meal input from families and the community; provides some extra training and grants to improve kitchen skills and meal quality of those directly serving the meals and financial support to fund frontline staff and food service," she said.

School lunch trays loaded with food and milk cartons sit on a metal table.
A school lunch at Maplewood Elementary School in Greeley, Colorado. Voters in the state approved a ballot measure in 2022 to provide universal free lunch and to pay for the $100 million annual cost by reducing tax deductions on Colorado's wealthiest residents. (Photo by Amy Mund, USDA)

In Minnesota, the universal free lunch program will cost $200 million each year and will be paid for through the state’s education funding.

Honer said along with increasing the quantity of school meals, they’re proud of increasing the quality too. While parents may have memories of less-than-appetizing school meals they had as kids, she encourages families to go on their schools’ websites and check out what’s on the menu.

“We have our schools in Minnesota doing everything that they can with local produce, with changing up the meal, so that there's variety, including different foods,” she said.

While states move to expand access to school meals, the federal government is making similar moves.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed lowering the participation threshold for the Community Eligibility Provision. Right now, 40% of a school must use federal assistance programs. The proposed rule would lower that to 25%.

The Biden Administration’s 2024 budget proposal also called for an additional $15 billion to support the Community Eligibility Provision.

FitzSimons said the USDA’s universal free lunch program during the pandemic has shifted thinking about school meals. Last year, she said, more schools took part in the Community Eligibility Provision than before the pandemic.

"(There) was a pretty significant jump in the number of schools that were using it,” she said, “and it was because schools didn't want to go back to not being able to provide free meals to all kids.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.