School Lunches: Are We Feeding the Future?


For many families, filling school lunch boxes is a household routine that provides a happy break for their children during the school day. However, for many, the requirement to provide a daily packed lunch proves an impossible financial burden, which can have a severe and permanent effect on America’s youth.


What is our current system? 

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is, according to the USDA, “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 lunches to children each school day.” However, the program is not universal. To qualify for reduced-priced lunches, a family’s income must be between 130% and 185% of the poverty line; to qualify for free lunches, their income must fall below that threshold. Additionally, families who are receiving financial aid from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, as well as families on food stamps, all qualify for free lunches. Further, children who are homeless, migrants, runaways, or in foster care may also be eligible for free lunches. 


What are the problems with it? 

While numerous scientific studies have shown that one of the major tools students need for success in school is a healthy lunch, and the NSLP provides some limited resources to help the most needy, the cut-offs for free or reduced lunch still leave many children high and dry. According to the Education Data Initiative, in the U.S., there are still 1.54 million students who pay full price for school meals they can’t afford, with each one racking up about $170.13 in debt every year. This is because their families earn too much to qualify for free or reduced meals, but they don’t make enough to afford school lunch every day. On top of this, to qualify for the NSLP, families must go through an application process that can be complicated and time-consuming and reveals private information. With all of this, it is clear that America’s current system of feeding students is highly inadequate.


What’s being done to improve it? 

According to Governor Josh Shapiro’s own website, his administration’s new budget includes $38.536 million to provide universal free breakfast for 1.7 million Pennsylvanian kids and covers the full cost of lunch for the 22,000 Pennsylvanian kids currently eligible for reduced-price lunches. This is a big step in the right direction; however, such measures are only temporary, as the next governor may slash this budget, putting us back where we started, if not further regressing. Meaningful change for school lunches, which would come in the form of forgiving all lunch debt and making school lunches free for all students, would have to come from congressional legislation, either national or statewide.