Are we really debating whether it is worth spending money to feed our children? Missouri’s kids deserve three meals a day without demanding they prove they are poor enough to get fed. For most of the pandemic, the Federal Government covered the cost of school lunches for every child in a public school in America. This program was implemented and funded because policy makers understood how important consistently eating healthy and balanced meals are for all of us, especially children.
Research study after research study confirms these opinions. For example, skipping breakfast is associated with higher rates of absenteeism and reduced cognition. And increased participation in school meal programs is also correlated to higher educational outcomes, educational attainment, and earning potential.
Even with the clear benefits of free school lunches, Congress chose not to renew the program, thus reverting back to the National School Lunch program rules and requirements that were in place pre-pandemic. When the Universal School Meals funding ended, over 10 million kids lost out.
The rules we returned to declare that students are eligible to receive free school meals if they live in a household with an income at or below 130% of the federal poverty level and students are eligible to receive reduced-price school meals if they live in a household with an income at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, these percentages translate to $36,075 maximum annual household income for meals to be free and $51,338 maximum for reduced-price.
In response to both the conclusion of the free school lunch program as well as seeing the benefits of the program, many states have taken matters into their own hands. Both California and Maine passed legislation that continued free school meals for all indefinitely. Vermont extended the free school meals for the 2022-2023 school year. In November, Colorado voters passed The Healthy School Meals for All ballot measure which will provide free school meals to students in public schools.
States paying for school meals for all students is costly, yes. Many states have deemed it too costly to even consider it, and have looked at other ways to expand the pool of families who can benefit from covered school meals. For example, Oregon increased free meal eligibility guidelines to cover all students up to 300% of the federal poverty level and New Jersey raised the eligibility threshold from 185% to 200%.
Missouri is also looking at what it can do as a state to address this issue. Sen. Angela Mosley (SB 321) and Rep. Brian Seitz (HB 172) sponsored bills this session that would require that all public school children would receive free school meals. HB 172 has not yet had a hearing while SB 321 had a hearing this week, and has narrowed its focus away from free meals for all. The substitute language of the original bill would allow all children in families at 185% of poverty and below to receive school meals free of charge. This would expand the meal benefit for students in the 130-185% range who are currently paying a partial cost for their meals.
While Empower Missouri would like to see free school meals for all children, expanding eligibility for free meals is still good progress. The proposed changes will ease costs for struggling families while also making progress toward a more simplified system that will be more effective for families and easier to administer for schools and their nutrition staff.
Food is as fundamental to learning as books and computers and the bus rides to get them there. Tell our lawmakers to rise to the occasion and support feeding Missouri’s children. When we feed our children, we’re feeding our future – these investments will yield benefits tomorrow through generations of healthier Missourians.