A new participation report by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) provides insight on trends in school meal participation before, during and after the implementation of federal pandemic waivers that allowed schools to offer free meals to all students.
The analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services (USDA FNS) shows that average daily participation (ADP) and total meals served for lunch and breakfast were higher in SY2021-22 (when all schools were permitted to offer free meals to all students without an application) compared to pre-pandemic participation (SY2018-19).
In particular, lunch ADP increased 2.49% from SY2018-19 to SY2021-22, reaching 30.29 million students per day in SY2021-22. For breakfast, ADP increased 6.54% from SY2018-19 to reach 15.71 million students per day in SY2021-22.
However, in SY2022-23, following the end of the ability to offer free meals to all students without a free and reduced-meal application, monthly ADP for both lunch and breakfast have dropped considerably.
When comparing the months of September, October and November in 2022 to the same months in 2018, lunch ADP was 6.54% lower in Fall 2022, dropping from 29.93 million students served per day to 27.93 million students daily. Similarly, breakfast ADP was 5.55% lower in Fall 2022 than it was Fall 2018, a drop from 14.97 million students served per day to 14.14 million students served per day.
These trends show that offering free meals to all students without an application leads to more students eating nutritious lunches and breakfasts in school—as well as the inverse: not offering free meals to all students and/or requiring applications leads to fewer students eating nutritious lunches and breakfasts in school.