Find a way to keep free school lunch permanently

Published 12:31 pm Friday, July 8, 2022

During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal policy allowed for everybody to eat free lunches at U.S. schools. Unless something changes, the conditions that existed before the pandemic will mostly return for the 2022-23 school year. The features of that school lunch system include:
— Onerous paperwork for many low-income families to fill out to receive free and reduced-price meals. Advocates point out that this barrier could be worse than ever in the coming year because families have gotten out of the habit of filing the forms.
— A constant need for school nutrition workers to track eligibility and hunt down payments instead of concentrating on procuring (no small matter during supply disruptions), preparing and serving meals.
— A breeding ground for bullying as children inevitably figure out which classmates don’t pay for meals, not to mention which families forget or fail to keep their accounts current.
— The prospect of children going hungry because of unpaid bills, even if they should have been eligible for fully subsidized food.
None of that needs to happen. This COVID accommodation should be made permanent. The need was apparent before the pandemic and shows no sign of abating.
Congress failed to extend the current school meal waivers it approved in the early months of COVID-19. Those waivers enabled schools to provide free meals to every student, regardless of income, which cut down on paperwork for the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, but they allowed school officials to buy any available food for school meals, regardless of federal nutrition requirements and without financial penalty.
The waivers gave schools the ability to operate year-round under the rules of the USDA’s Seamless Summer Option, a nutritional program that provides meals to all students for free during the summer months. They also gave schools around 90 cents more for breakfast and lunch total in reimbursements, allowed schools to serve meals for pick-up and gave schools flexibility to use COVID-19 safety precautions in lunchrooms.
The waivers, however, expired on June 30. And now, during the highest inflation in decades and rising food and fuel costs, districts will be scrambling to get as many families as possible on the NSLP and Free Breakfast Program’s free and reduced-cost meal programs. This will be a challenge in that many families are unaware of the programs, and there is quite a bit of paperwork to fill out.
A permanent national universal school meal program like the ones supported by the USDA during the pandemic would ensure that all students receive nutritionally balanced meals. It would address food insecurity issues, and would help those families hovering right above the income requirements for free and reduced-cost meals.
Newer plans passed by Congress and signed by President Biden this week would increase the numbers of families who could qualify for free and reduced-cost meals, but they still fall short of providing the flexibilities districts and parents need.
But independently of that debate, policymakers at the federal and state levels should be crunching numbers to figure out how to keep providing one of the most basic human needs in a fashion that’s far more efficient than the old way.
In the short-term, school districts need to get started early in alerting parents about what they need to do to qualify for the meals. In the long-term, Congress needs to work to reinstate the universal program.
Government officials like to talk a lot about outcomes and accountability. Research shows that children who receive healthy meals do better in school, have better test scores and are more prepared to learn.
That is reason enough to make free breakfast and lunch programs permanent in public schools.

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