Guest Essay: The Problems With Not Offering Free Meals for All Students in Public Schools

by | May 30, 2023 | Advocacy, Blog | 0 comments

By Kendall Rice

Last school year, students in the Seattle Public School District received free meals from waivers issued by the USDA. Last summer, the waivers were removed, and now students must meet requirements to receive free and reduced-price meals. 

Being a student in the Seattle School District myself, I have seen firsthand how this change has affected students. I remember last year seeing long lines out of the cafeteria to get snacks and meals during break times. This year, the lines are significantly shorter, and I see far fewer students with meals at lunchtime. Even students who can afford lunches are far less likely to take advantage of the food in schools if they must pay. Last year, I noticed that students who wouldn’t bring lunches to school were more likely to pick up a meal if they were hungry. This year, students who do not pack school lunches tend to go without meals, regardless of financial status. 

Despite awareness of how skipping meals can affect health, students have busy lifestyles that can get in the way of eating the necessary daily meals. Having easy access to free food in school cafeterias will promote eating meals, and provide options for students who do not bring lunches, but end up finding themselves hungry. Ultimately, it is the student who makes the choice to skip a meal or to eat. However, it is important that we make meals accessible to all students, so if they find themselves hungry, they have the opportunity for an accessible lunch. 

Taking away free meals has even impacted students who still receive free and reduced-price meals. Students are less likely to take advantage of this program when they believe that being seen with a school lunch means they are viewed as “poor,” which is a common issue in many schools. Having differently priced lunches for students of different incomes creates a stigma around who is going to be buying and receiving school lunches. This stigma can cause students to go hungry, because they are worried what others will think of them if they take advantage of their free or reduced-price meal. 

HB 1238 is a bill that was introduced in the Washington State legislature this year. Its purpose was originally to provide free school meals to all students, however, it was adjusted to provide free and reduced-price meals to more students than in previous years. Since this bill has passed, 58% of students in Washington will be eligible for free meals by the 2024-2025 school year. While it is an improvement on pre-COVID years, it has been scaled back from the USDA’s waivers that made free meals available to all students. We must continue to expand this bill until all students have access to free school meals regardless of financial status.

Kendall Rice is a junior at Ingraham High School in Seattle, Washington.

Written by hungerintervention

May 30, 2023

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