As policymakers, school officials and anti-hunger advocates have noted, these historic undertakings are all-around wins for children. Universal school meals will help boost children’s nutritional intake, decrease food insecurity, reduce the stigma of poverty, address racial inequities and improve children’s educational outcomes.
But children won’t be the only ones to reap tremendous gains from a universal school meal program. Another primary beneficiary: moms.
Today, mothers in the United States remain primarily responsible for feeding children. In heterosexual households with two parents, moms spend, on average, triple the time dads do preparing meals every day: 68 minutes vs. 23. Moms do most of the visible labor — grocery shopping, fridge restocking, cooking, cleaning up — as well as the invisible: planning meals, navigating allergies, worrying about children’s diets.
Under federal rules, children across the country have already been eligible for free and reduced-price school meals. But historically, major barriers have prematurely cut off many needy families. In particular, communities of color and immigrant families have been less likely to enroll their children because of a lengthy application process requiring the disclosure of sensitive personal information such as Social Security numbers and immigration status.
The result: For years, too many children have not received school meals for which they qualify. This failing has put the onus mostly back on mothers to figure out how to pay for and prepare their children’s breakfast and lunch on school days — with money and time they don’t always have.
Programs such as California’s and Maine’s will support mothers by reducing the financial, cognitive and logistical work that many currently devote to preparing children’s breakfasts and lunches. This means more minutes in mothers’ days to devote to other priorities (or pleasures), more money in their wallets and a load off their minds.
Universal school meals will also help bolster mothers’ — especially low-income mothers’ — sense of dignity. For mothers already struggling with food insecurity, being pushed even closer to the bone is demoralizing. These moms will sleep easier at night knowing their children are fed.
In addition, there will be gains for middle-class mothers, as universal school meals relieve the repetitive daily stress of packing meals and help to shift social norms around feeding children. Middle-class families have long had the option of buying their children school meals, but these meals have often (unfairly) been considered “charity” for low-income students, decreasing the likelihood of wealthier parents choosing that option.
Parents have also, rightly, worried about the quality of school food. Although the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 updated school-meal nutrition standards to align with the national Dietary Guidelines for Americans, there remains significant room for improvement. A universal school meal program could help: With greater student participation across society, governments are more likely to find the political will to make deeper investments in high-quality, nutritious school food.
For children and mothers alike, it’s time for the rest of the country to follow California’s and Maine’s lead and establish a national, permanent, universal school meal program. Such a program has long been written off as too costly and unrealistic. (By the 2022-2023 school year, California will invest $650 million in ongoing funds to continue its school meal program, and Maine will devote at least $10 million.) But the covid-19 pandemic is helping to transform perceptions.
In response to growing financial hardship and rising rates of food insecurity during the pandemic, the U.S. Agriculture Department began issuing regulatory waivers in 2020 that permitted schools to serve free meals to all children. Now there is growing support among congressional Democrats to make the pandemic-inspired program permanent.
The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 — introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) — would revolutionize how we feed the nation’s children. It would allow schools to provide free breakfast, lunch and dinner to all students; give families money for food during summer; increase school meal reimbursement rates; and offer school cafeterias incentives to source local foods.
Since our country’s inception, we have benefited tremendously from the uncompensated labor of mothers, who have fed the children who later became America’s workers and leaders. The moment has come for a national school meal program that will ensure American children don’t go hungry — and acknowledge that feeding children shouldn’t be solely mothers’ work.