The Biden administration is putting its weight behind an effort to expand free school meals to 9 million more children and ensure schools have healthier meal options through a national strategy that relies heavily on partnerships with private businesses and nonprofits, as well as the White House’s own authority.
But the effort does not pledge additional federal money, and legislation that would expand free school meals to all students remains stalled in Congress.
The push detailed Wednesday at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health involves what the White House calls an $8 billion effort to address food insecurity and nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity. Childhood hunger, and schools’ role tackling it, played a major part in President Joe Biden’s new strategy—the first of its kind since 1969 when former President Richard Nixon called on Congress to end hunger in America.
“In every country in the world, in every state in this country, no matter what else divides us, if a parent cannot feed a child, there’s nothing else that matters to that parent,” Biden said during the conference Wednesday. “If you look at your child and you can’t feed your child, what the hell else matters?”
In June, U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers that allowed all students to eat meals for free regardless of income status expired after Congress failed to include them in Biden’s 2022 spending bill in March. Congress has since passed a law to extend reimbursement rates that offer up to 40 cents more than what schools normally receive for each meal and provide flexibility for school nutrition departments to work around supply-chain shortages and offer meals to-go, but lawmakers have not secured universal free meals for all students.
The situation has been a point of concern for school nutrition directors, as students often receive their most nutritious meal of the day in school. The Biden administration plans to work with Congress “to expand access to healthy, free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032,” according to the strategy released Wednesday.
In July, a group of Congressional Democrats, spearheaded by Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., introduced the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act. In addition to reauthorizing the USDA’s child nutrition programs, the bill would expand access to free school meals by lowering the threshold for what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision for those programs. That allows schools or clusters of schools to offer free meals if 40 percent or more of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. Under the bill, that threshold would be lowered to 25 percent. The bill is still pending in both chambers of Congress.
Through the USDA, the administration also plans to expand student access to meals in the summer, provide more resources to school meal programs serving Native American students, and advance a new initiative to support schools’ efforts to improve the nutritional quality of meals. The initiative will offer American Rescue Plan dollars to small and rural schools so they can choose higher quality options and incentivize food companies to increase the supply of healthy options.
“This will mean kids will have healthier meals and we’ll strengthen rural economies at the same time,” Biden said.
Mobilizing private partners
Biden’s announcement also included partnerships with private companies, including Chobani, DoorDash, and Google, that will supply $8 billion to support the White House’s efforts to address food insecurity, nutrition-related diseases, and hunger.
To address the quality and accessibility of school meals and child nutrition, the administration is working with FoodCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to improving access to healthy school meals for all children. The nonprofit will be committing $250 million to its Nourishing Food Initiative, which aims to ensure all students learn about food and have access to free and nutritious meals in school by 2030. The nonprofit plans to expand its programming to reach 500,000 students a year through partnerships with schools and districts.
It also plans to prepare 1,000 emerging Black, Indigenous, multiracial, and people of color leaders for “mission-driven careers in the fields of food education and school nutrition.”
The FoodCorps initiative is backed by a set of high-profile donors, including Mackenzie Scott, the Newman’s Own Foundation, the Walmart Foundation, and Inclusive Capital Partners.
Other leaders in school nutrition praised Biden’s strategy, calling it a step in the right direction to eliminate childhood hunger.
“A healthy school meal is integral to the school day, and no child should go without due to inability to pay,” said Lori Adkins, president of the School Nutrition Association. “Research shows school meals support academic achievement and are the healthiest meals children eat.”