Get Ready To Pay for School Meals Again

‘It’s going to be a nightmare. Nobody is happy about it.’

A girl drinking milk from a carton

As if inflation weren’t hitting hard enough, families with children are about to see the return of a daily expense that’s been gone for the last two years: school meals.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal rules that allowed children to receive free meals at school regardless of income are ending June 30.
  • While many schools facing higher food costs are planning to raise meal prices for the upcoming school year, a proposed increase in federal subsidies could lessen the blow. 
  • Attempts by Democratic lawmakers to extend free universal school meals have gone nowhere, thwarted by conservatives who balk at the benefit’s cost.

Since shortly after the pandemic began, 30 million children have received free breakfasts and lunches at school under a soon-to-expire federal relief program. The Department of Agriculture, which manages federal school meal programs, issued temporary regulatory waivers allowing districts to offer free meals to everyone during the pandemic, regardless of their income. Previously, paperwork for the program had required families to prove they qualified for free or reduced-price meals based on income guidelines. 

The end of those temporary waivers—they’re scheduled to expire on June 30—is especially ill-timed for families whose household budgets are being squeezed by rampant inflation. Many of those families who have received free meals will now have to pay when school resumes in the fall. Average prices for school meals range from $1.46 for an elementary school breakfast to $2.74 for a high school lunch, according to data from the School Nutrition Association (SNA). But those figures are from 2017—before food prices shot through the roof. 

“So many families are struggling to put food on the table right now, and school meals have been a saving grace to help relieve that burden to ensure that every child is nourished,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the SNA, a nonprofit group representing school meal programs. “To lose that benefit, it’s a real loss to families.”

Advocates for school lunch programs say schools are facing much higher costs now than before the pandemic and, while many districts are trying to avoid passing the costs on to students, that’s usually not possible. Before the pandemic, lunches at public schools in Enterprise, Alabama, cost $2 for elementary school students and $2.25 for high school students, for example. But officials are planning to raise the costs to $2.50 and $2.75, respectively—a 25% increase at the elementary level. Indeed, most schools will probably see higher prices for school meals than they did before the pandemic.

Stephanie Dillard, child nutrition director for Enterprise City Schools, doesn’t know for sure how many of the 5,800 kids in her district are going to be able to eat at school next year, but she’s certain it’s not going to be all of them. 

When the clock runs out on the temporary federal rules, not all the Enterprise kids are going to be able to pay and, if experience is any guide, not all who qualify will apply to get free meals. Applying for government help often comes with a price in pride that not everyone is willing to pay. 

“It's going to be a nightmare,” Dillard said. “Nobody is happy about it. It's going to hurt our families.”

Fewer Children Went Hungry When Meals Were Free

Government data suggests that the expansion of free school meals succeeded in its intended purpose: preventing kids from going hungry. Among families who were economically insecure (even after the distribution of other pandemic aid such as the child tax credit), the percentage of households with children who sometimes or always didn’t have enough to eat fell from 21.3% in the early months of the pandemic, when the changes were implemented, to 14.2% by the summer of 2021, according to data from Census Bureau surveys. 

There’s every reason to believe the progress will be undone when June 30 rolls around, the SNA’s Pratt-Heavner said. 

It’s not just families who will feel the pinch, either. School meal programs will lose the extra funding and flexibility they’ve relied on to help deal with many of the same issues that are wreaking havoc in the broader economy—delivery delays and supply chain problems among them, said Jillien Meier, a director at No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit anti-poverty campaign. For example, she said, cafeteria workers won’t be able to run out to the grocery store for chicken when their normal vendors can’t make a delivery, an all-too-common occurrence these days. 

A bill proposed Tuesday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers would address this problem by extending some of the meal programs’ regulatory flexibilities by another year and boost federal reimbursement rates to schools to help deal with inflation. However—and importantly—it would not extend the rules that let cafeterias offer free meals without applications. 

Why Should Families Pay for Meals, Anyway?

School meal advocates said the bipartisan measure is a step in the right direction, but that offering free meals to kids without strings attached would be better. 

Dillard is among those who would like to see a major change: Never go back to the old system, and keep school meals free forever—subsidized by the federal government.

“Students don't have to pay for school,” she said. “They don't have to pay for textbooks, their laptop, or the library books, they don't have to go and pay for PE equipment. Meals are part of the overall well-being of a child. That child cannot learn being hungry. So it's an integral piece of the school system.”

Some conservatives object to universal free school meals, though, arguing that the policy is wasteful and would end up feeding children from wealthy families who don’t need any assistance.

Democrats in Congress have embraced the idea of extending the free meals, at least for the short term. Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan has proposed legislation to extend meal flexibilities, including those supporting free meals without applications, for another year. The measure was co-signed by a total of 52 of the 100 senators, including a pair of Republicans, but it’s currently stuck in a committee. 

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader, is among GOP opponents of the proposal who object to its $11 billion price tag, the Washington Post reported in March, citing anonymous individuals familiar with the matter.

Meier said she’s frustrated that the issue has been made into a “political football” that seems to be a low priority for politicians.

“We actually mitigated what was poised to be the largest childhood food insecurity crisis of our lifetime,” Meier said, calling the more flexible school meal programs remarkably effective. “Now they're yanking them away for no reason.”

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  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Building Back Better School Meals.”

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers.”

  3. School Nutrition Association. “School Meal Trends & Stats.”

  4. Census Bureau. “National School Lunch Program Still Important Part of Safety Net.”

  5. House Committee on Education and Labor. “Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022.”

  6. Heritage Foundation. “Why Isn’t the School Meal Program Serving Only Those in Need?

  7. Debbie Stabenow. “Chairwoman Stabenow and Senator Murkowski Lead Bill to Extend School and Summer Meal Flexibilities to Feed Children.”

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