The Road Ahead for School Meals

(October 20, 2023)

On October 19th, 2023, our partners from Just Harvest hosted “JUSTIdeas: A Free School Meals For All Event!” This event included a panel discussion with speakers:

In part, this event celebrated universal free breakfast for all of Pennsylvania’s children and the expansion of free school lunch, but also cautioned that there is more work to be done for school meals.

As a prime sponsor of universal school meals legislation that would fill in the remaining gaps in school meals, such as school lunch debt, Senator Lindsey Williams said “Kids can’t be prepared to learn without a full belly.” We couldn’t agree more and are excited to see this conversation continue.

Rep. Emily Kinkead, who is sponsoring a similar bill in the House, echoed these sentiments and added that across the commonwealth, “hunger impacts everyone.” Rep. Kinkead said there are Pennsylvania families she has heard from who, “live on this bubble…they need services but don’t qualify for them.” For example, there are children who don’t qualify for free school meals but their families still can’t afford to pay for daily school lunches. Both proposed bills ensure free school meals to all students who are not already covered through the federal free and reduced-price-meal and Community Eligibility Provision programs.

Nicole Paris works as a cashier in the lunchroom at Keystone Oaks, and she shared that lunchroom debt is still an issue for families. She said that even though her schools ensure each kid gets a basic lunch no matter their debt, lunch debt is accumulated, and letters go out to the parents at the end of the month saying how much each student owes. She added that although amounts remain “between the student and the school,” it is still a challenge because of social dynamics and stigma. Both bills propose erasing school lunch debt.

When it comes to school debt and investing in Universal School Meals, Rep Kinkead stated “the return on investment is so significant, it’s not worth nickel and diming” our children and families for school lunch.

Senator Lindsey Williams shared that universal meals would cost “less than 1 percent of the [state] budget.”

As we celebrate a major win with universal school breakfast, Allies for Children will continue our work alongside champions of school meals. Together, we can ensure that all students have access to school lunch – without incurring debt – and start the next part of their day ready to learn.

To learn more, see our previous blogs on school meals:
Celebrating Universal Free Breakfast and Expansion of Free Lunch in Pennsylvania
School Meals and the Governor’s Budget Address

Cristina Codario, Allies for Children Policy Director