Pioneer Pride – Free School Meals

Story provided by Stillwater Public Schools and Krista Neal, RD/LD, SNS, Director of SPS Nutrition Services

Beginning in March 2020 and continuing through May 2022, school meals are free for all public school students. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of school meals across America and throughout Stillwater. While schools and businesses were closed or at reduced capacity, families faced decreased income, while also needing to provide meals for children who used to be in school. When Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, he said, “Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger.”

Universal free meals eliminate hurdles related to school meals. Families do not need to enroll in meal programs or accrue meal debt. Families who are reluctant to apply don’t have to worry about sharing their household information. Universal free meals reduce the stigma associated with eating school meals. There is a perception that school meals are for low-income families, but school meals are for all students.

Universal free meals help families. Free school meals save a family’s grocery budget for other meals. School meals eliminate the daily need to worry about getting bagged lunches made and packed with healthy foods. Research shows compared to bagged lunches, school lunch provides more protein, calcium, vitamin A, fruits, and vegetables. Kids who eat school meals try more foods and expand their food horizons. Students can even supplement their home lunch with a fruit, vegetable, and milk for free. 

Free school meals also help the community. School nutrition programs are completely self-supported, and income is generated through federal reimbursements for meals served or from payments from families. When more students eat, Nutrition Services has more income for payroll, meal planning, and upgraded equipment. During school closures, Stillwater Nutrition Services did not furlough or lay off any employees. This was possible due to the number of families who participated in curbside or in-school meals.  

Funding for free meals comes from the US Department of Agriculture. These funds are paid by taxpayers around the country. Serving free meals in Stillwater ensures that Sillwater’s fair portion of those tax dollars is returned to our local community. If Stillwater families do not participate in these programs, those tax dollars will go to other parts of the country. School Nutrition Services works diligently to make sure each child has the nutrition they need to learn and improve their future situation, making their lives and our communities better and more economically stable, and hopefully reducing the need for such programs in the long run.

School nutrition professionals want to feed students.  School meals, especially for students who are learning from home, can be a comforting constant for a child who is going through a chaotic time. The kitchen staff are smiling behind their masks, and want to be a calming presence for a student during a stressful day. Just like meals from home, school meals are always made with extra love.