Families brace for possible end of universal free school meals

Against all the odds, Meighen Lovelace pulled off a feat sure to impress any parent: convincing her adolescent girls to adore broccoli.

For Lovelace, a single mother of two in Eagle County, Colorado, it was a hard-fought, decadeslong battle. Through mornings of at-home gardening, afternoons of hands-on chopping, and evenings of homemade pizza baking, her girls came to love fresh vegetables. And even as budgets tightened during the pandemic—Lovelace said she was fired from her job waiting black-tie banquet tables at a Vail ski resort when the lifts shut down—she relied on school meals to ensure her daughters remained nourished and full.

But with universal free meal programs set to expire in June, Lovelace fears what the future holds. If that happens, she expects her grocery budget to double—something her current gig in a barbeque food truck will be hard-pressed to support. She anticipates relying on food banks to ensure there’s enough to go around.

“This isn’t forever but it is right now,” Lovelace said, “without school [meals], I don’t really know what right now is going to look like.”

Lovelace and her family are not alone.

In a move that took advocates by surprise, universal free school meal programs, initially introduced in March 2020 as the pandemic began, were not included in the $1.5 trillion spending bill passed by the Senate on Thursday night.

Should the programs be left to expire in June, an estimated 10 million children will lose access to free school lunches, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) told ABC News. And for families like Lovelace’s, losing school meals isn’t easy to replace. They’re often the healthiest and most consistent source of sustenance for children of families under financial pressure.

The effects reach beyond rumbling bellies, too. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the long-term consequences of hunger include reduced academic achievement, behavioral issues, and chronic illnesses like diabetes already endemic among American children.