Congressional Democrats once again are turning up the heat on efforts to expand school meal access even as districts prepare for a new year without universal free school meals.
Last week, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., introduced the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, an effort to reauthorize U.S. Department of Agriculture child nutrition programs. The bill would expand access to free school meals, provide more money in meal reimbursements to schools, and tackle food insecurity in the summer.
“Unfortunately, Congress has not reauthorized federal child nutrition programs in seven years, and as communities see higher rates of food insecurity and families face higher costs, Congress must deliver the evidence-based, comprehensive legislation that children and families need,” Scott said during a U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee markup on the bill Wednesday.
The bill is the latest legislative effort to address expiring USDA nutrition waivers that allowed all students to eat for free regardless of income. Here’s what educators need to know about the bill and other efforts to combat hunger as schools approach the 2022-23 year.
Expanding affordable meals to more students—and in summer
If passed, the bill would give more schools the opportunity to offer free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision of federal law, a USDA program that allows entire schools or clusters of schools to offer free meals if 40 percent or more of the school population is eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
The bill would lower the threshold to 25 percent and allow states to elect the provision statewide. It would also expand summer food service by reducing the eligibility threshold for summer meals to 40 percent from 50 percent of students in the area qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.
The bill would also increase school lunch reimbursement rates from 10.5 cents per meal to 20.5 cents per meal and authorize $35 million per year from fiscal 2024 through fiscal 2028 so that schools can purchase kitchen equipment and improve lunchroom infrastructure.
House Democrats say the measures would go a long way in combatting food insecurity. In 2018, more than 2.7 million households with children did not have reliable access to nutritious food, according to a USDA household food security report. The pandemic has only exacerbated food inequality with Black and Hispanic households with children reporting food insecurity rates that were double those of white households with children, according to a May 2020 report from the Urban Institute.
How the expanded meal waivers were created
The bill is the latest in a string of efforts to prepare school nutrition departments for the upcoming school year after the USDA’s pandemic-era meal waivers expired on June 30. Those waivers, introduced in 2020, gave schools more flexibility to respond to the pandemic by allowing them to serve meals to-go, offering higher reimbursement rates to offset inflation costs, and giving all students access to free school meal programs regardless of income.
An effort to include the waivers in President Joe Biden’s $1.5 trillion spending package failed in March. Last month, Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, a bipartisan effort to extend the waivers that allowed for meal flexibility and reimbursement rates that are 40 cents higher for lunch and 15 cents higher for breakfast than what districts receive normally.
The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act has received widespread support from child and school nutrition advocates. In a news release, the School Nutrition Association said the bill includes “long-term solutions and critical support for school meal programs and students.”
Republicans say the free meal expansion would be a ‘burden’
During the Wednesday committee hearing, a handful of Republican lawmakers argued the bill would be an unnecessary burden on taxpayers and school nutrition workers.
“Instead of funding targeted, need-based programs, this bill will create bloated and extraneous programs at the expense of taxpayers,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said at Wednesday’s markup. “Spending more is not the way to ensure these programs are meeting the intended purpose of feeding kids in need.”
Republicans also argued that the bill is poorly timed because schools still haven’t recovered from the pandemic and have been unable to evaluate how typical nutrition programs are operating.
“Our schools are just starting to get back to regular order,” Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, said. “We should wait to see how these programs operate before changing them.”
In a separate development, a group of over 20 Republican attorneys general this week filed a federal lawsuit against the USDA, contesting its interpretation of Title IX law as preventing LGBTQ-related discrimination in school meal programs.
The Agriculture Department’s announcement came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that gender identity and sexual orientation constituted sex discrimination in employment law. The case was Bostock v. Clayton County.
The USDA ordered all state and local agencies and program operators that receive Food and Nutrition Service funds to investigate allegations of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, and to update non-discrimination policies to reflect gender identity and sexual orientation.
In the lawsuit, the attorneys general argued that the USDA’s directive “misconstrue the law and impose unlawful requirements.”