The expression “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” has been kicking around since the Great Depression. But since the COVID crisis hit last spring, the federal government has, in fact, been allowing schools to serve free meals to all students. And now, in an opinion piece published on the website of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, Teachers College’s Julia McCarthy is urging the Biden administration to permanently extend that policy, “making now the moment to end student hunger for good.”
Noting that 27 percent of families with children “are now worrying where their next meal will come from, and the longer-term economic crisis will likely leave millions teetering on the brink of food insecurity for years to come,” McCarthy, Interim Deputy Director of TC’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy, urges amendment of the 2010 The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which authorized funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs and increased access to healthy food for low-income children.
Stopping hunger is only one reason for expanding the Act, McCarthy emphasizes. “Without this legislation, obesity rates among this cohort would have been 47 percent higher. Now, students who eat school meals every day have better diets than students who do not. They eat more fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains, reducing the long-term health effects and healthcare costs of diet-related diseases. But the Act’s promise of free meals has yet to be fully realized.” Invoking Joe Biden’s own campaign slogan, she concludes: “Now is the time to build back better. The current crisis has highlighted the essential role that school meals play in students’ daily lives.”
The longer-term economic crisis will likely leave millions teetering on the brink of food insecurity for years to come.
— Julia McCarthy, Interim Deputy Director of TC’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy
In a recent story in Civil Eats, McCarthy is also prominently cited for work that has helped document the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the food security of Black Americans. McCarthy and researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina have used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and individual districts to visually contrast meal pick-up sites with the percentage of neighborhood populations that is Black. The article reports that their findings were used by a team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to charge, in Louisiana and Alabama, that several districts that ceased meal service because of budget constraints were “violating civil rights laws, because such a high proportion of students eating the subsidized meals were Black.” In addition, according to Civil Eats, “even in places where meals were offered, limitations like site location and pick-up times prevented many Black families from accessing them.”
“In the westernmost part of St. Mary Parish [in Louisiana], the census block tract there is 72 to 88 percent Black,” McCarthy says in the story. Yet “there wasn’t a single meal distribution site there.”
As of September, according to the Urban Institute, 40 percent of Black families with school-age children were food insecure, compared to 15 percent of white families.