Universal Free School Lunches Program Expires
Congressional Democrats are working on more permanent changes to the Department of Agriculture’s child feeding programs, including additional funding to support the school feeding program, though they’re far from making it universal.
This week, two members plan to introduce a re-authorization that would give more children and families entitlement to things like school lunches and the special supplement program for women, infants and children (WIC).
The measure draws on lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic and was launched by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore. ) , the chair of the Civil Rights/Human Services Subcommittee — would make it easier for the USDA to respond to emergencies and give it the power to lift onerous requirements in times of crisis. One of the key lessons confirmed by government agencies’ response to the pandemic, Scott said, is that investing in child nutrition programs significantly reduces child hunger.
“From January 2021 to April 2021, food shortage rates in households with children have fallen by more than 40 percent – thanks to investments in several Covid-19 relief packages,” Scott said.
Reauthorizing child nutrition is the path to more lasting change, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, an organization that fights child hunger.
“It offers the opportunity to permanently modernize and strengthen child nutrition programs. This is especially true for the Summer Meals program, which historically has only reached 1 in 7 eligible children who eat free or discounted meals during the school year,” she said. “It’s not okay to stick to the status quo at summer dinner if the program isn’t reaching the kids who need it most.”
The reapproval would be the first since 2010, when Congress and the Obama administration wrote stricter nutritional standards into law and created a provision that allows high-poverty counties, census data shows, to automatically provide free meals to all college students.
For children in poverty, schools are not just a place to learn, but a lifeline. Before the pandemic, more than half of schoolchildren came from households poor enough to qualify for the free and discounted meals, and schools served about 20 million free lunches every day.
In 2020, households with children saw a significant increase in food insecurity, with around 1 in 6 reporting not having enough food for all household members. In about 7 percent of households, both children and adults were starving. It reversed more than a decade of decline in food insecurity. And in a survey of teenagers conducted this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a quarter reported food insecurity.
The pandemic-era flexibilities were intended to address concerns about rising child hunger and keep cafeteria staff away from close contact with children, who would normally swipe a card or punch in a PIN to show they signed up for free Meals have qualified. Many school nutrition directors expected the flexibilities to continue into the next school year. But in March, as Congress prepared to pass an omnibus spending bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected to the extension, and it was scheduled to expire on June 30 during the summer food programs.
Less than a week before expiration, President Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act into law in June, providing schools, summer lunch spots and child care programs with additional resources to weather rising food and labor costs. But it allows for the general lunch supply until the beginning of the coming school year.
School nutrition directors are well aware of how childhood hunger affects learning and they welcomed the move to make meals universally available.
Donna Martin, director of school nutrition in rural Burke County, Georgia, had made the school feeding program universal before the pandemic, taking advantage of a provision that allows districts with high concentrations of poverty to feed every child for free. She wishes Congress could have extended the general eligibility for meals to all school districts.
“How come books are free… but you have to pay for lunch?” said Martin. “Lunch is just as important as the computer, the book, the bus that takes you to school.”
Jessica Shelly, the school nutrition director for Cincinnati Public Schools, said she strives to get families to fill out applications in her district. To qualify for free meals, households must earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Many of their families find that they have barely crossed that threshold.
“Many of our families came to rely on meals and use their money for other family needs, like fueling their car, buying clothes or paying bills,” Shelly said. “With the regulations phasing out, our families will have to choose whether their students will receive meals and other essential expenses.”
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