Meal participation drops at nation’s largest school districts following loss of free meals

A new report by the Food Research and Action Center reveals that school breakfast and lunch participation took a downturn when schools began charging for meals again.
Students eating in the classroom
The nation's largest school districts saw a reduction in school meal participation once they began charging for meals again. | Photo: Shutterstock

The return to charging for school meals caused a decrease in school meal participation at the country’s largest school districts, a new report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) reveals. 

FRAC surveyed 91 large school districts (defined as having an enrollment greater than 7,000 students) in 40 states and the District of Columbia about their meal participation during April 2022 and October 2022. 

When comparing average daily meal participation across all the districts between the two months, they found that average daily breakfast participation decreased by more than 100,000 students and that average daily lunch participation decreased by more than 250,000 students. 

The report’s authors note the drop in participation between April 2022 and October 2022 is likely due to the June 2022 expiration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Seamless Summer Option (SSO) waiver that allowed schools across the country to feed all students for free and receive a higher meal reimbursement rate.  

While, as a whole, most school districts served fewer students breakfast and lunch in October 2022 compared to April 2022, 33 districts did see an increase in breakfast participation from April 2022 to October 2022, and 28 districts saw an increase in lunch participation from April 2022 to October 2022. 

In order to increase school meal participation, the report’s authors suggest finding ways to expand universal free meal access for students. A handful of states, including California, Maine, New Mexico, Minnesota, Colorado and Vermont have started, or will soon begin, serving universal free meals to all students. Lawmakers in other states, including Massachusetts and Rhode Island, are actively working to pass universal free meal legislation. 

See which states currently offer universal free meals via the map below:



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