An Apple A Day: Universal School Meals

February 1, 2023 by Danielle Dooley, MD, MPhil & Greg Damelin

We all know the expression, “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.” Providing children with access to nutritious foods is crucial for their growth and development, and the prevention of illness. It is also important for their academic success. Providing access to nutritious food for students has been shown to have a positive impact on their academic performance, thus making it a vital resource for students and their families. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:  

  • School breakfast programs are associated with better grades, standardized test scores, and school attendance 
  • Not eating enough of certain foods, like fruits and vegetables, and nutrients, like iron and zinc, is associated with lower grades and higher school absenteeism (1)

Simply put, children cannot perform well in school, and even attend school, if they are hungry. Policies that support Universal School Meals would help to mitigate this problem by providing all students with access to healthy and nutritious meals, regardless of their family’s income level.  

During the pandemic, and especially in the early months, many parents and caregivers experienced job loss and financial hardship, which resulted in difficulty purchasing food for their families. In response, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which allowed school nutrition programs to offer free meals to all students. (2) Even before the pandemic, the affordability of school meals was a major issue for students. According to the Education Data Initiative, about 1.5 million students are unable to afford their school meals and the average meal debt per child is about $170 yearly. (3) With the start of the 2022-2023 school year, the universal free school meal waivers ended, and states returned to eligibility verification systems, which spend taxpayer dollars to facilitate income verification, application processing, and other administrative tasks. Additionally, the application and verification process creates barriers to entry that stigmatize families and can cause feelings of shame and embarrassment among students at school.   

It’s crucial to apply the lessons learned from the pandemic waivers that provided universal school meals  and continue to address food insecurity in our communities. Fortunately, we have examples of states that are leading the way. Starting in the 2022-2023 school year, California became the first state to introduce a statewide Universal Meals Program for all school children, making history. This program, known as the California Universal School Meal Program, goes beyond the federal requirements for food standards in schools by recognizing the importance of food as a social-emotional need for students. Under this program, all students will have access to nutritious breakfast and lunch options at no charge. (4) To the east, Colorado voters passed legislation providing all students in public schools with free lunch. This program—titled Healthy Meals for All Public School Students—passed in 2022 with 56% of the vote in Colorado’s midterm election. (5) By ensuring that all students have access to nutritious food, California and Colorado are making critical investments in the future success of their students and families.  

A similar opportunity exists in the District of Columbia. According to the Capital Area Food Bank, over 84,000 District residents struggle to get the food they need, and one-third of those are children. (6) In response, and to support educational recovery for children, Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At Large) and seven other lawmakers introduced the Universal Free School Meals Act of 2023, which would provide free universal school breakfast, lunch, and after-school snacks to DC students in public, public charter, and nonprofit private schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program. (7) The cost of implementing this program, according to estimates from the D.C. Food Policy Council, would be approximately $8 million a year. This may seem like a large sum of money, but it is a fraction of the city’s budget of $19.5 billion. (8)  

Implementing universal school meals is a key ingredient to addressing the educational and health needs of children in our community. Through this policy, all students will have equal access to healthy food, creating a more inclusive and equitable learning environment for all. Let’s work together to ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive, both academically and physically, and gets an “Apple a Day.” 


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health and Academic Achievement. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.
  2. Economou, R. States Step in as End of Free School Meal Waivers Looms. National Conference of State Legislatures, July 29, 2022. Available at:,temporarily%20free%20for%20all%20students. Accessed January 25, 2023.
  3. Hanson, M. School Lunch Debt. Education Data Initiative, October 12, 2021. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.
  4. California Department of Education. Universal Meals. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.
  5. Murdock, S. Colorado Voters Pass Universal Free Lunch For Students. HuffPost, November 12, 2022. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.
  6. Capital Area Food Bank. Fact Sheet-DC. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.
  7. Councilmember Christina Henderson. Councilmember Christina Henderson Introduces Legislation to Benefit Students from Pre-Kindergarten Through College. January 17, 2023. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.
  8. Schmeltzer, S. Universal Free School Meals for DC Students, DC Food Policy Council. December 2022. Available at: Accessed January 25, 2023.

Header Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

About the author

Danielle Dooley
Danielle G. Dooley, MD, MPhil, FAAP

Medical Director, Community Affairs and Population Health within the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children's National Hospital

Greg Damelin

Biophysics and Economics Major at Georgetown University