Scaling Back Nashville's Free School Lunch Program

By TNFP's Office Manager, Elizabeth Langgle-Martin

I vividly remember the day in kindergarten when I opened my lunch, removed my sandwich from its plastic baggie and bit into it, only to discover it was two slices of plain bread. It’s a story that’s gone down in our family’s folklore. My sweet, young, probably exhausted, mom, in the morning rush and commute, forgot to put peanut butter, cheese, or anything that would constitute a sandwich between the slices of wheat bread. It’s funny, because I had a mother that carefully packed me lunches every day of my elementary school career. Veggie sticks, tuna sandwiches, raisins and apples. Granola bars, cucumber slices and thermoses of milk. My stomach was full and I could focus on the perils of learning cursive, fractions, and trading Beanie Baby cards.

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I know that my lunch experience is not universal. In Tennessee, one in seven families doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. Most of us can agree that a child who is hungry isn’t able to listen, learn, befriend their peers, and engage in a holistic school experience. When I read the news headlines that students’ access to free and reduced lunches was changing, I reached out to Madison Wall (Children Nutrition Advocate) and Keith Barnes (Director of Nutrition) at The Tennessee Justice Center to help me understand all the elements and what is at stake.

Please note, this is my personal interpretation of an hour-long interview. I’m new to this conversation and maybe you are too! Hopefully, my slightly bumpy explanation will encourage you to dive a little deeper into the way policy affects food accessibility in Metro Nashville schools.


Federally funded free school meal programs in the U.S. date back to the 1940s. (Check out this handy factsheet). In 2013/4, the Nashville community became an early adopter of the Community Eligibility Provision (or CEP) – a program that allows school districts to serve free meals to ALL students, regardless of income. This meant that MNPS schools no longer had to enroll and closely track individual student eligibility. Among students, it reduced the stigma of receiving meal assistance and -- perhaps most importantly -- made sure no child needing access to nutrition was falling through the gaps.

But recently, it was determined that Nashville’s school system no longer meets the benchmark to fall under the blanket of this program. Barnes suggests that this can be attributed to a combination of things such as: the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, a tense time in immigration policy which discourages families without documentation to provide personal information, and even some economic improvements.

So what next? Metro Schools has announced that half of the city’s lowest income schools will continue to provide lunch to all children at no cost to the student. However, the remaining half of the city’s schools will return to assessing the students’ individual eligibility to determine who does or doesn’t receive free meals. Advocates are concerned that this abrupt change may result in students who have been relying on the free lunch program struggling to meet their nutritional needs during the school day.

The Tennessee Justice Center is asking for MNPS to continue offering a lunch to all the children enrolled at no cost to the student and their families, which they believe can be supported by a number of creative, sustainable funding solutions. In particular, they are advocating for school district leaders to implement an strategy to help all eligible families within the MNPS system to enroll in SNAP, which can both help schools receive additional federal reimbursement, and ensure that more eligible families have food in their pantries at home.

Program quality is constantly on TJC’s radar as well. For instance, Madison notes that the existing free breakfast program is hard to access for some students. For instance, if a free breakfast is offered until 7:45 am but the last bus doesn’t arrive at the campus until 7:50 am, that group of students is unable to partake. Madison works with schools to look at alternative ways to make sure that all students can access the meals that the school is paying for and preparing each day.


So, the big question… How can the average Nashville resident (like me!) advocate for students to continue to have access to meals at no cost to the child during their school day?

1. Ask the mayor’s office to make an immediate investment of 7 to 8 million dollars to our school district to ensure that all students continue to receive uninterrupted access to lunch during their school day. You can email Mayor Briley directly at mayor@nashville.gov.

2. Sign up for email updates from The Tennessee Justice Center to learn more and receive prompts for accessible action items. You can also learn more and get involved in specific campaigns through their website, including signing up to be a Breakfast Champion. Supporting this proposed in-class meal model (Breakfast After the Bell!) would allow more students to eat the available free breakfast.

At The Nashville Food Project, we're working toward a vision in which everyone in Nashville has access to the food they want and need through a just and sustainable food system. We recognize that this cannot occur without the intentional and detailed work of advocacy and policy change, and we are thankful for the work of The Tennessee Justice Center and other similar groups as they seek to help increase access to nutritious food in our community.