Missouri should consider the Rocky Mountain road to universal school lunch

January 12, 2023 6:30 am
Springfield Public Schools school meals

Students receive free breakfast and lunch as part of Explore, Springfield Public Schools’ summer learning program during which more than 8,000 students were served each day, including grab and go meals for virtual learners (Photo courtesy of Springfield Public Schools).

Better grades, improved health and higher lifetime earnings are why Missouri should join the growing list of states that provide universal school meals to all public school students.

In 2017, researchers at Syracuse University published a study on the impact of free school lunches on all New York City middle school students. The findings showed that free meals increased performance in math and English for students across the economic spectrum. In fact, the “non-poor” students, those who were never certified as eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, had a slightly higher increase in both academic fields during the period of free meals.

The Syracuse study also revealed an improvement in Body Mass Index for students who switched to regularly eating the school meal. That health benefit was not a surprise when considering the American Heart Association’s diet score and the USDA’s Healthy Eating Index during the same time found that food consumed at schools was of higher quality than food from grocery stores and restaurants.

The benefits of universal school meals can extend far beyond a student’s time in the classroom. In 2017, the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, a German-based economic think tank, released its study of Sweden’s policy of free and nutritious meals in all elementary schools. Students who benefited from the meal program performed better academically, which correlated with a 3% increase in lifetime earnings.

Recent comments by Rep. Brian Seitz, R-Branson, hint at the prospect of bipartisan interest in providing meals for all of Missouri’s students. To get there, state leaders will need the political will and foresight already embraced by California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont.

Most recently, Colorado voters committed to students and families during 2022’s midterm election by passing Proposition FF to provide free meals for every public school student.

Colorado’s Healthy School Meals for All Program will launch for the 2023-24 school year and provide schools with purchasing grants that incentivize buying products from Colorado suppliers and fund pay increases to address staffing shortages among frontline school cafeteria workers. The program will raise $100 million annually by reducing the state income tax deduction (down to $12,000 for single filers and $16,000 for joint filers) for households with federal adjusted gross income over $300,000.

As taxpayers, we should feel proud to fund a fully-resourced education for the young minds that will soon lead our country. Instruction, support staff, textbooks, and bus service to and from school are rightfully provided to students without consideration of financial need, and nutritious daily meals should be no exception.

Whether by following Colorado’s example or finding another path, Missouri should proudly and amply invest in every element that every student needs to offer society their best.

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Peter Gariepy
Peter Gariepy

Peter Gariepy is a Missouri CPA specializing in state and federal tax credits, with a personal interest in how the tax system can be better utilized for greater public benefit. His commentary has appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Kansas City Star.