Stop-gap legislation to ease school meal challenges for now praised, but further action urged
Last Friday, Congress passed the nearly $3b Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, introduced by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, R-NC, and supported by senators Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and John Boozman, R-Ariz.
The eleventh hour passage came days before the June 30 expiration of nutrition waivers established early in the pandemic when supply chains and disruptions to in-person teaching complicated schools ability to feed children.
Lauding the passage, SNA President Beth Wallace explained that the passage “provides critical aid to school nutrition professionals confronting a continued onslaught of challenges in their effort to ensure students are nourished and ready to learn.”
She added: “Supply chain breakdowns, skyrocketing costs and sever labor shortages, expected to persist well into next school year, have prevented school meal programs from returning to normal operations.”
Even under ideal conditions, and before the pandemic, the school meal program was stretched thin with low reimbursement rates limiting the types of foods schools could afford and stories of some schools shaming or denying meals to children who, unable to pay, had built up lunch debt.
The Keep Kids Fed Act addresses both new and old challenges by including a 40-cent increase in federal reimbursement for every school lunch and 15- cent increase for every breakfast above the annual inflationary adjustment scheduled for July 1. It also extends no-cost waivers for schools unable to meet nutrition standards and reduce administrative and reporting burdens, and extend waivers for the 2022 summer meal programs.
Costs from the legislation are covered by the US Department of Agriculture and the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March 2021.
While the legislation is helpful, it also falls short of SNA’s and public health officials wish list as it nixed a provision to provide free meals to students eligible for reduced-price meals.
“We are extremely disappointed Senate leaders were forced to strike a key provision to eliminate the reduced-price meal co-pay for eligible families, struggling with rising food and gas costs,” Wallace said in statement, adding the loss places children at risk of going hungry.
Additional action necessary to keep hunger at bay
Other public health advocates, including Richard Besser, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, also expressed the support for the legislation, which they argue in an editorial helped “head off an impending calamity” in the summer.
However, they argued, “while this bill helps our nation avoid the worst outcomes in the near-term, it is far from perfect.”
For example, they lament, caregivers will need to reapply for reduced price meals when the summer ends – “a cumbersome process that does not reach every child in need” and which will strain schools’ already limited resources.
“This will mean that some children will be forced again to stand in a different line or receive a different meal from their peers, which invites stigma and shame,” and will bring a return of school meal debt, they write in the editorial.
Other families will face a hunger cliff when they lose healthy school meals for all when the school year starts,” argues the Food Research & Action Center.
To avoid this, FRAC urges Congress to extend through the upcoming school year, waivers that allow schools to offer free meals to children and expand access to the summer feeding program nationwide through the upcoming budget reconciliation process.
Brown and Besser ague more states should follow the lead of California, Maine and Vermont, which passed legislation providing free school meals to al children through at least the next school year.
They also want to see the expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with at least 40% of students living in poverty to offer free meals to all pupils.
Finally, they say they hope issues related to the school meal programs and “systemic inequities in nutrition policy” will be addressed at The White House’s Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, slated for this fall.