Bill would offer free meals to all public school students

Universal program would remove stigma, officials say
June 2, 2023

A bill recently introduced in the Delaware General Assembly would provide free breakfast and lunch to all public school students regardless of family income. 

House Bill 125, sponsored by Rep. Rae Moore, D-Middletown, and Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, D-Wilmington, is designed to remove the stigma and stress for students while also providing a healthy, nutritious meal to support improved classroom performance. 

“As a teacher, I have seen firsthand what can happen when basic needs are not met,” Moore said at a May 24 roundtable discussion at Everett Meredith Middle School in Middletown. “When students are hungry, their energy is depleted, their concentration weakens and their potential becomes untapped.”

Gloria Ho, a school social worker at Milton Elementary, said being food insecure affects students, resulting in lower grades, difficulty paying attention and poor social interactions. 

“They come in tired, they’re hungry and they’re irritable,” she said. “It affects them academically, behaviorally and socially.” 

She said some students in Cape Henlopen School District live in a food desert, an area that does not have easy food accessibility or proximity to healthy, nutritious food.

“When students are prepared, focused and engaged in the instruction, it benefits the entire classroom,” she said. 

Offering free breakfast and lunch to every student, she said, can remove the stigma associated with such programs for low-income students. 

“Lunch shaming is a thing,” she said. “It can identify and stigmatize children of families that don’t have the money to buy a school meal.”

She said many students are dealing with family situations that are totally out of their control. 

“I do believe parents do the best they can, but with limited incomes and rising food costs, children might not always receive proper and adequate nutrition they need,” she said. “Healthy foods can be expensive. Families don’t always have the resources to provide for it.” 

Existing reduced-price or free meal programs in schools also fail to catch all students in need, she said. 

“It will not capture our working families who hover just above income requirements, but also still struggle to meet those needs,” she said. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture eased program restrictions to allow free meals for all students. Those eased income requirements expired June 30, 2022. 

Colleen Carter, nutrition supervisor at Brandywine School District, said she sees the difference universal free meals made during that time. In addition to removing the stigma, she said, students were eating healthier. 

“We were seeing students eat healthier food at school than what they were packing from home,” she said.

Now nearing the end of the first year without the USDA’s universal program, she said she’s seeing students spending lunch money on snacks instead of meals.

“We have requirements for our snack program that they have to meet nutritional guidelines; however, [students] are not going to have a fruit or a vegetable with their snack,” she said. 

She said her district is also starting to see a lot of meal debt.

“We have families that either just miss the qualifications for reduced-price meals or free meals; we have students who qualify for reduced-price meals, but still can’t afford the reduced price,” she said. “So our meal debt for students is really starting to balloon.”

Under HB 125, the state would reimburse all schools for all expenses not already reimbursed by the USDA through its School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program. 

The bill was introduced April 20, but has not been assigned to any committees. 

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