Should schools provide free lunch for all students ?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate about free school lunch in America has been reignited. Across the country, American voters argue whether or not the tax increase is worth extending COVID-19 benefits to continue providing free lunches for school children.

Rise of the Issue

In the mid-20th century, the National School Lunch Program was established in order to provide meals to food-insecure students at school. The vast majority of schools across the country follow the guidelines outlined by this legislation, but many disagree with this approach. 

Americans on either side of the political spectrum have been debating for decades whether or not it is a smart decision to make school lunches free for children. Supporters argue that this policy helps provide food to students from low-income families who might not otherwise be reliably fed. Opponents say this is fiscally irresponsible, as this would cost Americans much more in taxes. 

Currently, the National School Lunch Program still provides free or low-cost nutritious lunches to school children across the country, but many advocate for the abolition of this program. Factors such as waste, accessibility, food options, and funding are at play when considering this issue.

Issue Timeline


Philadelphia and Boston Begin First Lunch Programs

Labor unions in Philadelphia and Boston help institute cheap lunch programs that give people access to hot meals for one penny each.


President Truman Establishes National School Lunch Program

This legislation, signed into law by President Harry Truman, provides federal funding through grants to states for low-cost or free lunches within public and private educational institutions and provides about seven million lunches to students each year.


President Reagan Slashes School Lunch Funding

In an effort to reduce government spending, President Ronald Reagan cuts federal school lunch funds by $1.5 billion, and as a result, limits food portions in order to make up for this budget cut.


Congress Passes Bill Requiring Nutritious School Meals

With the urging of First Lady Michelle Obama, Congress passes the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides funding for school meals with higher nutritional value.


School Lunches Free Due to Pandemic

Due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provides waivers to schools through the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option due to high unemployment rates and food insecurity.

Micro Issues


Means Testing

The two sides disagree on the benefit of having means testing to see who meets the strict set of requirements in order to qualify for the program, with those in favor saying it helps prioritizing those in need, and those against believing many food-insecure students will therefore not be eligible for free school lunches.


Increased Government Spending

Many argue that, because the pandemic is winding down, the federal government should not provide funding for free lunches because of the price tag, which could raise taxes on taxpayers. Proponents say that this price tag is worth it because hungry kids will be fed.


High Inflation

The high inflation that the U.S. has been experiencing has made it more difficult for some caregivers to feed children, making a free school lunch program a helpful option for some American families. Opponents of the program argue that this high inflation will only be made worse by increasing taxes to pay for this program.

Pro Arguments


Students from low-income families can reliably eat.

As of 2021, 5.6% of American children lived below the poverty line, meaning their families were limited in their abilities to provide food regularly for the household. Being fed two meals per day at school would help students whose caregivers are in financial need eat nutritious meals regularly.


Free school meals may provide health benefits.

Because of federal standards for school meals, students who eat school lunches routinely receive proper nutrition intake, according to the Food Research Action Center. Packed lunches from home often do not meet dietary requirements, and malnutrition is inevitable among students of low-income families due to the high expense of buying healthy, organic foods.


Free school lunches can be convenient for caregivers.

Because many caregivers and parents are incredibly busy with work and other responsibilities, being responsible for providing lunch for their children everyday at school is just one more thing they must be responsible for. Having free lunches at school could be incredibly helpful for caregivers who are normally in charge of providing these meals.


Nutritional needs met by free lunch programs increase learning potential.

When students are well-fed at school, they are more effective in the classroom and better at forming relationships, according to the Food Research Action Center. If students are hungry, they often perform worse at school and may experience behavioral issues.


Lunches provided by free lunch programs reduce obesity.

Because of the nutritional content of school-provided meals, students involved in free lunch programs have lower BMIs than others. Studies show that free lunch programs can reduce national obesity rates by up to 17%.

Con Arguments


Free school lunch programs can be very expensive.

Because the funding for free school lunch programs comes from the federal government, taxpayers would need to pay for this program.


Universal school lunches could lead to wasted food.

The average plate waste in American cafeterias ranges from 27% to 53% of the food given to these children, according to researchers at Penn State University.


Students have unique dietary needs.

Not all students can eat the same meals, as many have dietary restrictions such as food allergies, gluten or lactose intolerance, or diabetes, for example. Having universal school lunches would cause parents to pay taxes for meals their students may not even be able to eat.


There is high dissatisfaction about the quality of school lunches.

Many schoolchildren will tell you that they do not like the taste of school lunches. This causes many students to choose packed lunches over school lunch; therefore, their families will be paying taxes for lunches that their children will not be eating.


Students of different cultures will not have access to cultural foods.

Many students in America come from immigrant families; therefore, they are accustomed to foods of different cultures. With universal school lunches, students will not have access to the foods they eat at home, as the lunches served through universal school lunch programs typically include standard American food.