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It Is Time for Free, Healthy School Meals for All Students

When students have access to healthy and nutritious meals, they show up to school energized, focused, and ready to learn.
Published: March 2021

On behalf of its more than 3 million members, the National Education Association (NEA) fully supports the initiative to provide healthy school meals for all students at no cost to them.  When students have access to healthy and nutritious meals, they show up to school energized, focused, and ready to learn.

However, not every student currently qualifies for free school meals. We have heard too many stories from school food service workers—including those who are members of the NEA—about how they have had to take a hot meal away from a student if that student is unable to pay. This results in a child going hungry and it also exposes them to unnecessary shame in front of their peers. This is not right; all students—no matter what they look like or where they live—deserve access to the resources they need to grow and thrive, which includes healthy school meals. As one of the world's wealthiest countries, we should and must ensure every student has access to this essential need.

By providing meals to students at no cost to them, we will witness improved health, well-being, and classroom performance; we will eliminate the stigma of student meal debt; and we will help schools avoid complicated and burdensome paperwork. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to test healthy meals for all through the extension of school meal waivers, and we were met with success: Not only were we, as a country, able to afford it but our schools were also able to implement plans that ensured every child—regardless of learning mode—had access to healthy meals. School food service workers were able to serve hot meals to children in schools, provide grab-and-go meals for those who were virtual, and execute meal delivery at the same time. We must build on this accomplishment with a robust response to childhood hunger that ensures our students have a solid foundation for growth and learning.

Free, nutritious meals for all students have multiple benefits.

School meals support learning. Students who participate in school breakfast programs have improved attendance, behavior, academic performance, and achievement.[1] Research has clearly demonstrated the link between school meals and student success, which is especially important as schools and educators continue to strategize how to combat the loss of opportunity to learn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

School meals promote healthy eating habits. Thirty million students rely on schools to provide them with breakfast and lunch every day. Those who participate in the school meal program consume breakfasts and lunches of higher nutritional quality than nonparticipants and are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.[2]

School meals improve health outcomes. Participation in the school breakfast program is associated with lower body mass index (BMI), lower probability of being overweight, and a lower likelihood of obesity.[3]

Providing school meals for all helps cash-strapped schools. School meals cost schools less per student when more students participate in a free meal program. One study found that schools that participated in a universal meal program spent 67 and 58 cents less per lunch and breakfast, respectively, while maintaining the same nutritional quality.[4] Cost savings are especially important as many schools may face impending budget cuts.

Providing school meals for all keeps the focus on nutrition and students. Federally funded free meals for all students means food service workers can focus exclusively on preparing and serving healthy and nutritious meals to our students. They will no longer need to worry about unpaid meal debt collection and burdensome paperwork.

School meals for all can save billions in the long term. More Americans are sick than they are healthy: Half of adults have diabetes or prediabetes; more than half of adults have cardiovascular disease; and 3 in 4 adults are overweight or obese. Sickness has a cost. Healthcare costs account for 29 percent of state budgets and 28 percent of the federal budget. We can grow generations of healthy eaters and save our country billions.[5]


[1] School Meals Are Essential for Student Health and Learning. Food Research & Action Center.

[2] New School Meal Standards Significantly Increase Fruit, Vegetable Consumption. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

[3] School Meals Are Essential for Student Health and Learning. Food Research & Action Center.

[4] Long, M.W.; Marple, K.; Andreyeva, T. (2021). "Universal Free Meals Associated with Lower Meal Costs While Maintaining Nutritional Quality." Nutrients. 13, 2:670. Retrieved from

[5] Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (2018). American Heart Association, Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics (2018). The Milken Institute, America’s Obesity Crisis (2018).

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.