Starting this fall, all students in Indianapolis public schools will get a free breakfast, lunch, and snack every school day under a federal program set up four years ago. “Hunger and having a healthy lunch and breakfast should not be a barrier to teaching and learning,” Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent Lewis Ferebee told the Indianapolis Star earlier this week. “We want to make sure our students are healthy and well fed so they can learn.”
The federal program, which was set up by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, funds free meals for students in “Community Eligible” districts where 40 percent of kids at one or more schools already qualify for free lunches. In Indianapolis, 77 percent of students qualified for free meals and just 18 percent, 5,500 students out of over 30,000, were required to pay.
The free meal program cuts down child hunger in low-income areas. A study of schools in Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan that have guaranteed free lunches and breakfasts to all students shows that when meals became free, lunch participation rates increased dramatically, growing by 13 percent over two years.
The change in the number of students eating breakfast was even more striking: Breakfast participation in 2012 was nearly three times higher in schools that opted for the program than schools that did not. This is especially significant because studies show having breakfast is linked to motivation in school and academic success. Nationally, just half of students in the free and reduced lunch program eat breakfast at school, and three-quarters of the nation’s teachers say they have students who often come to school hungry.
By eliminating the application process for free or reduced lunches, the free lunch program also lifts the hurdle of paperwork for low-income families, especially for parents whose native language is not English.
And despite some concerns about the cost of making school lunches free for all students, making meals free can actually cut down on other costs. The bureaucracy associated with determining whether a child qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches can be complex and therefore expensive. And many reduced-price eligible students who use the meal program but still find it hard to pay for meals run up cafeteria debts that never get paid.
But perhaps more crucially, the program helps reduce the stigma low-income kids face in schools when they have to get a free or reduced-price lunch. Some schools have thrown out meals when students don’t have the money, and one even stamped kids’ hands if they couldn’t afford lunch.
Abigail Bessler is an intern at ThinkProgress.