End to universal free meals in schools may offer challenges

Columbia, SC (WOLO)  — As the new school year approaches, pandemic protections that allowed all children to eat for free have ended. Families will now need to complete an income-based application to qualify for free meals.

Dr. Orgul Ozturk, economics professor at the University of South Carolina, says she and her colleagues’ research shows that lower income families outside of the qualifying cutoff for free lunches will feel the effects of this the most. “It’s going to be a shock financially for the families,” says Dr. Ozturk.

Dr. Ozturk, along with other researchers from the University of South Carolina, Georgetown University, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis,  found that meal times at school can sometimes put lower income students who are eligible for free meals in embarrassing situations.

“There is a stigma associated with being the one who is getting the lunch for free and may keep students from eating the school lunch, which then very much defeats the purpose of the program itself. The lunch that’s provided for the most vulnerable is not being utilized,” Dr. Ozturk says.

Lower income students who do not financially qualify for free lunches may face stigmas as well.

“When someone who is supposed to be paying for their lunch but is unable to do so, and there’s no universal free lunch, that creates a lot of stigma that creates a very uncomfortable environment for teenagers or a child in a very vulnerable psychological state already,” Dr. Ozturk says.

The researchers found that students who can’t afford school meals may in turn experience other issues at home, leading to behavioral issues at school.

“It may also be stemming from food insecurity at home. So when your parents don’t have enough, and it’s leading to domestic disputes, if you have a family fighting because economically you can’t afford this or that–that is also going to affect the kid’s psyche and result in behavioral problems and discipline problems,” Dr. Ozturk says.

The research found that when meals were free for all students, academic and behavioral issues tended to improve.

While some schools use a program called the community eligibility provision to help serve free meals, Dr. Ozturk says one solution remains the strongest, saying, “That is as a society our duty to feed the children. If you ask my opinion as a researcher and a mother, I think we need to provide free and healthy lunch for all. So our kids have at least some source of reliable nutrition.”

To read Dr. Ozturk and her colleagues’ research, visit the following link at Science Direct.

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