The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Universal free school lunch program is set to expire

During the pandemic, Congress expanded the program so that no child had to pay

During the pandemic, Congress expanded the free school lunch program so that no child had to pay. (Lisa Rathke/AP)
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The nation’s first experiment in feeding every public school student free of charge, launched to arrest a burgeoning child hunger crisis in 2020, will come to an abrupt end this summer. Administrators will race to ensure that hungry children still qualify and draft the correct paperwork to receive cafeteria food, even as rising food prices pinch family budgets.

Democrats in Congress are working toward more permanent changes to the Agriculture Department’s child nutrition programs, including additional funding to shore up the school lunch program, though they fall far short of making it universal.

This week, two members plan to introduce a reauthorization that would make more children and families eligible for things like school lunches and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Drawing on lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, the measure — drafted by Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the Civil Rights/Human Services subcommittee chair — would make it easier for the USDA to respond to emergencies, giving it authority to lift onerous requirements in times of crisis. One of the key lessons reaffirmed by government agencies’ response to the pandemic, according to Scott, is that investing in child nutrition programs markedly reduces child hunger.

“From January 2021 through April 2021, food shortage rates among households with children fell by more than 40 percent — thanks to the investments in several covid-19 relief packages,” Scott said.

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization is the route to more permanent changes, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of Share Our Strength, an organization fighting childhood hunger.

“It presents an opportunity to modernize and strengthen child nutrition programs permanently. This is particularly true for the summer meals program, which historically has only reached 1 in 7 eligible kids, those who eat free or reduced-price meals during the school year,” she said. “It’s not okay to stick with the status quo for summer meals when the program isn’t reaching the kids who need it the most.”

The reauthorization would be the first since 2010, when Congress and the Obama administration wrote stricter nutritional standards into the law, and created a provision to allow high-poverty districts, as demonstrated by census data, to automatically provide free meals for all 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 reduced-price meals, and schools served about 20 million free lunches every day.

In 2020, households with children saw a marked increased in food insecurity, with about 1 in 6 reporting that they did not have enough food for every member of the household. In about 7 percent of households, children as well as adults were going hungry. It reversed a more than decade decline in food insecurity. And in a survey of teens conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this year, one-quarter reported food insecurity.

The pandemic-era flexibilities were intended to address concerns over rising childhood hunger, and to keep cafeteria workers out of close contact with children who would normally swipe a card or enter a PIN to show that they qualified for free meals. Many school nutrition directors expected the flexibilities to continue through the next school year. But despite lobbying from the Biden administration, efforts to extend the program encountered resistance from Republicans and ultimately failed.

An aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that the minority leader and other Republicans think schools no longer need the pandemic-era provisions, especially as the conditions that made them necessary — such as school closures — have ended.

Less than a week before the provisions were set to expire, President Biden in June signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, which equips schools, summer meal sites and child-care food programs with extra resources to weather rising food and labor costs. But it allows the universal lunch provision to sunset at the start of the coming school year.

School nutrition directors are keenly aware of how childhood hunger affects learning, and they hailed the move to make meals universally available.

Donna Martin, school nutrition director in rural Burke County, Ga., had made the school meals 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 universal meal eligibility for all school districts.

“How come books are free … but you have to pay for lunch?” Martin said. “The lunch is just as important as that computer, that book, that bus that gets you to school.”

Jessica Shelly, the school nutrition director for Cincinnati Public Schools, said she is scrambling to get families to fill out applications in her district. To qualify for free meals, households must make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Many of her families are finding that they are barely over that threshold.

“A lot of our families came to rely on the meals, and put their money toward other family needs, such as putting gas in their car, buying clothes or paying bills,” Shelly said. “With the sunsetting of the provisions, our families are having to choose between their students receiving meals and other important expenses.”