How Free School Meals Help All Students

For the 2022-23 school all students in Tacoma Public Schools will get free breakfast and lunch, regardless of income status. Our local schools are able to do this under what’s called the “Community Eligibility Provision,” (CEP), which provides federal funding to school districts with a higher proportion of low-income households so that all students in a district can get free meals. 

The basics of this policy make it a no-brainer. It’s fairly low-cost, nobody has to take advantage of free breakfast and lunch, but it’s there for any student who would like it. Since the CEP program isn’t universal, it also provides a good opportunity for researchers to examine the impact of universal free school meals vs. free school meals for only low-income households.

  • Many researchers have shown that universal school meals improve academic performance among a student body.
  • This study demonstrated that universal free meals reduced suspension rates among elementary and middle school students.
  • Another paper showed that universal free lunch reduced household spending on groceries, and also seemed to improve dietary quality at home.
  • Research also found that universal free lunch reduced grocery store prices throughout a local area.


This is a great example of how good policy can have all sorts of positive ripple effects. The research bolsters the case for extending universal free school meals to every school district, not just those that are currently eligible for CEP. This would help middle-class families who are not eligible for the free school meal benefit; and it would also help low-income families who may be eligible for free school meals, but who miss out due to cumbersome sign-up processes. There is also a compelling argument that universal free school meals would reduce stigma by letting everyone receive school meals as equals.

Universal free school meals really do look like something that carry a lot of benefits with no discernible downsides. It would be great to see the Federal government send money to states to pay for universal free school meals, but in the absence of that, there’s nothing stopping Washington from doing this at the state level. Some progress was made in 2022 State Legislative Session with the passage of a new law that requires all school districts who are eligible for the CEP program to sign-up. But of course not all districts are eligible, and the next step would be for the state to pay for free meals at all public schools for all students.