Q & A: Fighting for Universal School Meals

October 27, 2023

School meals are a critical source of nutrition for the 1 in 8 children facing food insecurity in America. Yet, many students are cut off from this support because of cost and stigma barriers. Learn about how MAZON is fighting for universal school meals from three of the people leading this work — Samuel Chu, Paul Sherman, and Lauren Banister.

How did MAZON start advocating against lunch shaming and for universal school meals?

SAMUEL: In 2014, MAZON was working closely with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which surfaced a significant problem of “lunch shaming” in schools — this occurs when students are unable to pay for school meals and are denied food. When MAZON and our partners brought this to the attention of schools and elected officials, we were met with resistance — many claimed it was impossible to fix because “then everyone would stop paying and the school would go bankrupt.”

MAZON, with our synagogue partners, built political pressure on school officials and elected leaders until it was politically untenable for anyone to continue to ignore the issue of lunch shaming. It quickly became clear that when school meals are free for all students, it removes the possibility of lunch shaming while also eliminating stigma and various eligibility issues.

How has the fight for universal school meals changed in recent years?

PAUL: When the National School Lunch Program started in the 1940s, many Americans felt that fighting childhood hunger was crucial to national defense. It was designed to be a universal program, but from the beginning, some communities faced barriers to accessing the program. A lot of power rests with state governments, and unfortunately, ensuring equity has been an uphill battle in many states.

For years, MAZON has been working with local partners to advance legislation to combat this shameful phenomenon. And in 2019, we proudly stood next to lawmakers in Washington, DC as they introduced federal lunch shaming legislation for the first time.

Then during COVID-19, various government relief packages included free school meals for every public school student in the country, providing essential support to millions of families. When the federal mandate ended in 2021, MAZON jumped into action to codify these policies alongside advocates nationwide. Most notably, in coalition with incredible partners, we secured a monumental victory in Colorado to fund Healthy School Meals for All. Engaging our Jewish community partners in this work was, and will continue to be, crucial in MAZON’s efforts to raise awareness about initiatives like this.

LAUREN: As part of MAZON’s mission, we aim to build capacity in the anti- hunger and Jewish communities. We will not win alone — we need to build the momentum so everyone can realize their political power.

To date, only 8 states have permanent universal school meals legislation — California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont. MAZON is working with the North Carolina Alliance for Health to mobilize Jewish communities in North Carolina to get School Meals for All included in their state’s budget. It’s invigorating to ride this wave of policy change and investment around school meals alongside our Jewish communal partners, as together we ensure our nutrition safety net reaches everyone who needs it.