Waivers during the COVID-19 pandemic made school lunches free for all K-12 students. About a third of those meals will need to be paid for by families next school year.

As a part of the government’s effort to feed children during the pandemic, the US Department of Agriculture allowed all K-12 students, rather than only those eligible for free or reduced-price meals, to get free school breakfast and lunch no matter their family’s income. The waivers were extended to all students attending schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program. But the extended program will come to a halt at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

In fiscal year 2019, 29.6 million students received a free or reduced lunch each school day or 52.1% of all public school students. This number dropped to 22.6 million in fiscal year 2020 due to school closures caused by the pandemic. Although the count of students receiving free or reduced lunches dropped, the percentage of all students getting meals through the program increased in the last two years.

In 2021, 98.3% of all students participating in the national school lunch program received a free lunch. This rate was a 24.2 percentage point increase from pre-pandemic participation in 2019. According to the USDA, nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools participate in the program.

Eligibility for free or reduced school lunches increased at the start of the pandemic.

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Who qualifies for free or reduced lunch?

The percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch is often used as a measure of how many students live in poverty. A student from a household with an income at or below 130% of the poverty income threshold is eligible for free lunch. In addition, some groups of children — such as foster children, and children participating in the Head Start and Migrant Education programs — are also eligible for free lunches through the National School Lunch Program. A student from a household with an income between 130% and up to 185% of the poverty threshold is eligible for a reduced-price lunch.

How many kids are eligible for free and reduced lunches?

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 52.1% of public school students were eligible for free or reduced lunches in the 2019-2020 school year. The share of students eligible that year is 13.8 percentage points higher than in the 2000-01 school year.

In 2019, about 33.2 million children received school meals, including about 20.1 million who received free school lunches or 60%, according to data from the US Census.

School lunches were free at National School Lunch Program participating schools in 2021.

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Pandemic leads to expansion of free school lunches

Outside of the USDA waiving eligibility requirements for free lunches, there were several other policy changes that compensated for the loss of meals due to school closures. Some school districts provided meals that could be picked up or delivered by school bus transportation.

Another response to the loss of meals due to school closures was the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT). The new program provided direct emergency funds to households with children that would normally get meals through schools.

In the 2020-21 school year, 98% of the meals were free compared with 68% to 2019-20. Due to decreased enrollment, schools served 271 million fewer meals over the same time.

How did the program expansion impact food-insecure households?

During the pandemic, food insecurity in households with children declined, according to data from the Household Pulse Survey. In addition to more students being eligible for free school lunches, families also received other financial support from the government. An expanded child tax credit, stimulus payments, and expanded unemployment insurance payments all contributed to declines in food insecurity despite the economic turmoil of the pandemic.

Between April 2020 and August 2021, when the most recent USDA policy changes were implemented, food insecurity in households with children facing economic insecurity fell by about 7 percentage points, according to the Census Bureau.

Will universal free school meals become permanent?

Prior to the pandemic, some high-poverty schools provided universal free meals through a program created by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. A provision in the law allows an individual school or a cluster of schools within the same district to provide free meals to all students if at least 40% of enrolled students live in households that participate in other federal income-based programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

California and Maine are the first two states to pass a universal free school meals program. New York City also offers universal free meals to K-12 students.

The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 was introduced to Congress last year and would permanently allow all K-12 students, regardless of family income, to receive free school meals. The bill has yet to pass in either chamber of Congress.

To read more on child welfare programs, see USAFacts' childcare and wellbeing metrics