Twenty-two States Are Trying to Deny Free School Lunch to LGBTQ Students 

By Saima Akhtar, Senior Attorney, and Katharine Deabler, Staff Attorney

The tide is rising high this year of far-right attacks on LGBTQ youth. And the multi-pronged strategies to win a right to discriminate against young LGBTQ people are horrifying.  

In March, Texas’ State Department of Family and Protective Services, under the direction of Governor Greg Abbot, began investigating families providing gender-affirming medical care to their transgender and gender non-conforming children.  

Last month, what is known as the “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law became effective in Florida, after signing by Governor Ron DeSantis. The law bans discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grades and other educational settings. A copycat law also went into effect in July in Alabama with expanded terms to keep transgender students from using bathrooms, locker rooms, and similar facilities that match their gender identity. The list of new anti-LGBTQ laws targeting students is dizzyingly long. 

One of the latest strategies in the slew of attempts to legalize discrimination is a set of lawsuits trying to challenge the USDA’s sole authority to enforce anti-discrimination policies directly tied to the federal school lunch program, and USDA’s efforts to protect LGBTQ students. Politicians are trying to deny LGBTQ students from low-income families free school lunch. 

Attorneys General in Tennessee and twenty-one other states have filed a lawsuit to pick apart the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recently-updated policy on complaints alleging discrimination on the basis of sex.   Updated in May, the USDA’s policy clarifies discrimination includes that related to sexual orientation or gender identity consistent with President Biden’s January 2021 Executive Order 13988, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020). The lawsuit claims that the USDA violated federal rules governing issuances of administrative policies and the First Amendment—but it is really about degrading and denying LGBTQ students’ most basic and human need for food.   

This attempt to take free food programs away from LGBTQ students comes at a time when hunger rates are soaring amidst pandemic driven inflation and economic downturn. If they win, the impact will be staggering. The free school lunch program provided 4.8 billion lunches to students across the United States in 2019 according to USDA reports. 

What many know as “free school lunch” was established as the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Program in 1946. The program provides school aged children from low-income households with nutritionally balanced, low-cost, or no-cost lunches each school day. It is the longest established national feeding program in the United States, meeting the needs of millions of households on an average school day. 

This case is one of many appalling and abusive ways far right politicians are worming their way into legal and administrative systems connected to schools and families to punish LGBTQ youth. This would  target the LGBTQ children of low-income families of color who already face food insecurity at rates nearly double those of white families with comparable income. And affordable food programs that assist low-income families, like SNAP and the federal lunch program, are already mired with barriers to access. 

From our work protecting access to free and low-cost food programs at NCLEJ, we know that the free school lunch program consistently and reliably provides food to millions of vulnerable students across the county. During the pandemic, the the federal lunch program was pivotal to combating heightened food insecurity. Congress created the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) during the COVID-19 pandemic to enable low-income families to buy food for their kids who would have received free school lunches but couldn’t get meals because they were learning from home. That continued access to free food is crucial. It enables kids to succeed and provides a mechanism to support families if a crisis arises.   

Every single child deserves to  to eat on a daily basis. Food is a necessity. That elected officials are fighting for permission to deprive young people of food is morally bankrupt. Instead of challenging federal agencies to fight for ways to sanction discrimination, states across the country should face their responsibilities and work to fix the hunger crisis that millions of their constituents face.