Students could lose access to free school lunches when a key federal program expires June 30th
Lawmakers are considering a new bill to extend the free lunch program that was passed as part of a coronavirus relief package in 2020.
WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Students could lose access to free summer and school lunches on June 30th if lawmakers don’t act on new legislation to extend a federal program that was passed during the pandemic.
Since March 2020, Congress has provided the United States Department of Agriculture with special authority to help to schools and meal programs. The USDA tells the Washington News Bureau, that “allowed the USDA to equip schools and other child nutrition program operators with much-needed extra resources and unprecedented options so they could maintain successful meal service to kids throughout the pandemic.” The Department said the pandemic program has surged the number of children eating free school lunch every day from 20 million to nearly 30 million.
However, Congress did not extend the program beyond the 2021-2022 school year. Therefore, the benefits of that program will expire on June 30th. The USDA said those expiring benefits include:
- Providing school meals free of charge to streamline program operations while protecting public health
- Providing a higher reimbursement rate for meals served to help schools cover increased costs as a result of the pandemic and resulting supply chain disruptions
- Waiving certain nutrition standards
- Allowing summer and after school meal sites to operate in any location
- Reimbursing family day care in homes for all meals and snacks at the highest rate.
Senators have proposed a solution to extend the benefits through the summer and into September 30, 2023. However, the bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is one of the lawmakers who wants to see the extension passed.
“Unfortunately, there are way too many families where kids go hungry on a regular basis. And, part of that is obviously due to food inflation prices. Part of that is due to just normal challenges that come up in daily life,” said Warner, who credited the expiring federal program with cutting government bureaucracy throughout the pandemic.
Warner believes families need more time to recover.
“So this legislation’s pretty simple. It simply says, before we go back to the old days, let’s go ahead and keep for at least the next two summers, this summer and next summer, the same less bureaucratic, less red tape regulations in place,” he said. He later added, “this should be a no brainer. You know, we ought to be about efficiency, delivering meals to kids. And, we all know a lot of food insecurity. We know come this summer, particularly if we see inflation, prices continue to go up, more and more families may have to rely on these summer meals.”
Washington News Bureau reporter Jamie Bittner visited John Adams Elementary School in Virginia, where school lawmakers have kept a close eye on the help coming from Capitol Hill since the pandemic began. Currently, students at that school are eating free thanks to COVID-19 waivers and several federal programs.
Principal Dr. Alicia Kingcade said “the help that we are receiving means a lot to the students and our families. It’s a great benefit to our families especially because it’s offered to our families during break times, during winter, spring break, and during these unprecedented times.”
Alexandria City Public Schools assistant director of nutrition services, Sarah Bennett, has been navigating the changing federal programs during the pandemic. She said the district has seen an increase in students participating in the free meal services, since the federal help was extended.
“We’re just proud of all the hard work that not only our school district is doing, but school districts across the nation, in meeting the demand for our meals, servicing our kiddos, being flexible under various circumstances. I think school nutrition programs across the nation have done a fantastic job in being flexible and continuing to serve our students, and we’re proud of the work that we’ve done,” said Bennett.
Bennett believes free lunches at John Adams Elementary School will not be impacted by the federal program that is about to expire as she said that school operates under a separate provision.
She told the Washington News Bureau approximately 72% of students at John Adams Elementary School and its accompanying Early Childhood Center, have been eligible for free or reduced meals in the past.
“I am passionate about ensuring students are fueled to learn for their day regardless of their income backgrounds. We’re here to service every student and make sure every student is fueled to learn,” she said.
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