Federal support for school lunches is set to expire at the end of the month after the US Congress refused to renew funds for a school lunch program implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program removed food aid requirements and allowed schools to reimburse fees to provide free meals to all students. It provided $11 billion a year to schools, enabling them to provide breakfast and lunch to millions of students.
However, despite having been extended by Congress twice before, Democrats who control both the House and Senate have decided it is no longer worth funding. By cutting the program from this year’s $1.5 trillion federal budget, Congress has opened the door for hunger to return to nearly 10 million school-aged children this summer, a number that will only worsen with the return of the school year in the fall.
Jillian Meier, director of advocacy group No Kid Hungry, told the Guardian, “I think we’re going to see in real time the summer hunger crisis getting worse, and that’s going to give us some insight into what’s going to happen next school year.”
As food prices continue to soar amid decades-high inflation, schools are under extreme pressure. During the program, they could count on a regular reimbursement of $4.56 per meal for all students. Now they will only receive $3.66 for participating students as qualifying restrictions come back into effect.
The financial pressure on schools will strike quickly. As food prices rise rapidly, there have been reports of school officials shopping at Costco early in the morning to try and buy cheap groceries in bulk. Some school districts have been forced to reduce the number of food options and even the quality of food, which could lead to additional financial penalties as schools struggle to meet standards issued by the US Department of Agriculture. United States (USDA), which oversees the federal government. school meal programs.
Even before waivers were scrapped, schools were already struggling to keep meal plans going. According to USDA Deputy Assistant Secretary Stacy Dean, speaking to the Washington Post in March, “90% of schools use waivers and only 75% of them break even.” And with a decline in school staff during the pandemic, schools are additionally lacking the manpower to improve services.
“We literally believe we’re going to fall off a cliff on June 30,” Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, told Vox. “And we just don’t have the manpower to go back to doing what we’ve been doing. [pre-pandemic]. We have school districts missing hundreds of people, so expecting them to account for every child and their household income is ridiculous.
Millions of parents were also suddenly thrust into an impossible situation. They will have to somehow find the money to replace the school meals that once provided up to 50% of their children’s daily caloric intake. Not only that, but school officials noted that signing up for free or reduced lunches under the previous requirements could take a year.
Teachers and school workers often begin talking with parents about meal programs in the fall, preparing them for enrollment for the following school year. Now schools will have to process millions of applications within months and many families may not be aware or be able to complete registration on time, leaving them without the help they need.
This drastic reduction in food services will have serious repercussions on the health and learning ability of children. Access to summer meals for students could increase the number of high school graduates by 82,000 and save more than $50 billion in education costs each year, according to a study by No Kid Hungry. Indeed, starving students are unable to learn effectively and often suffer significant learning losses over the summer, necessitating additional funding to support them. Not only that, but undernourished children are 31% more likely to be hospitalized with an average hospital bill of $12,000, a cost that could put a family in debt for years.
Democrats quickly blamed the cut on Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who blocked passage of the Kids Not Red Tape Act proposed by Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow last March. However, funding for the waiver was never included in the original budget proposal and, despite bipartisan support, never received meaningful efforts from Senate Democrats to ensure its passage.
Ultimately, Democrats agree with McConnell that pandemic-era social measures must end and the gutting of what has become an essential child hunger prevention service is necessary to force parents back to the workplace.
“There’s no urgency or political appetite to even have this conversation,” Meier said. “Frankly, it’s not a priority for Congress and the White House. People are really focused on getting ‘back to normal’…people don’t talk about it and they have no idea that this crisis looms.”