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Food leaders call for more free meals at school during White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health

Universal free meals for students was a main topic of discussion during the day-long event.
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Food leaders called for the expansion of free school meals for all students during the White House’s Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on Wednesday.

During his speech to kickoff the conference, President Joe Biden reiterated his support for expanding free school meals over the next several years and said that offering free meals to an additional 9 million students by 2023 is part of the White House’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.

Later that morning, Donna Martin, foodservice director at Burke County Schools in Waynesboro, Ga., also advocated for the expansion of free school meals, saying it would get rid of the stigma many students dealing with food insecurity face in the lunch line.

“There is a huge stigma attached to school meals being free. A lot of kids that qualify for free meals will not eat them because they're afraid their friends will know they're free,” said Martin. “By offering this, we would cut out the stigma, we cut out the lunch debt, no teachers would be hounding the kids and managers be calling up those parents.”

Offering healthy school meals for all would also allow school nutrition professionals to spend more time educating students about how and why to eat healthy, she added.

“Healthy school meals for all is not a food security program, but a nutrition security program,” she said. “This is our opportunity to teach kids how to eat healthy and guess who they're gonna go home and teach? They’re going to teach their parents how to eat healthy.”

Celebrity chef and World Central Kitchen Founder José Andrés also called for the expansion of free meals during his keynote speech, saying that schools could “improve the food health of our entire country.”

The School Nutrition Association has advocated for offering universal free meals on a permanent basis throughout the pandemic. Over the years, federal bills seeking to provide universal free meals have been introduced, but nothing has been passed.

At the state level, California and Maine have both included funding in their state budgets to offer free school meals for all students, and several others have earmarked funding to keep offering free meals for at least another school year.

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