Universal Free School Meals Have Ended – Advocacy Opportunities Continue

Just a few weeks into the new school year, many families are learning that after two years of all Missouri public school children receiving free school lunches, the School Lunch Program has returned to pre-pandemic form. Back in March of 2020, many Federal child nutrition waivers were offered as a form of COVID-19 relief. These waivers did many things, including, enabling school districts across the country to provide free lunches to all families. This waiver ended June 30th when Congress declined to include it in the Keep Kids Fed Act. This Act did increase the federal government’s payments for school meals by 40 cents for lunch and 15 cents for breakfast, which has helped school districts with rising food prices, but it did not extend the universal free school meals. 

This means now only certain qualified students can receive free or reduced price school meals. Students who do qualify, based on the income of their family, will once again have to apply to be a part of the Free or Reduced- Price School Meal Program. (or be in a school that qualifies for and has applied to be a part of the Community Eligibility Provision). This means some children may fall through the cracks. Collecting applications is always a challenge for schools. This year, when applications have not been needed for two years, it could be even tougher. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and individual school districts have been communicating this change to families, but continued and robust outreach is necessary to ensure no child goes without a school meal. There is a real concern that some children who are in real need of this help may miss out. 

 As policy advocates, who don’t work at schools or with families with low incomes directly,  we look ahead to things like the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) on the Federal level which addresses school meals. Child Nutrition Reauthorization provides an opportunity to improve and strengthen the child nutrition programs so that they better meet the needs of the nation’s children in pre-school, school-based, and out-of-school time settings”. We can use our voice and our influence to ensure a strong passage of the CNR finally takes place this year!

Child Nutrition Reauthorization is supposed to happen every 5 years. The last time reauthorization took place though was in 2010 through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-296). It officially expired in September of 2015, however, the programs will continue to operate at the 2010 levels until a new bill is passed. 

A step in the reauthorization process happened in Congress in late July when The House Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) unveiled the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act. This bill will reduce childhood hunger across the nation. It invests in programs and changes policy provisions to more effectively and efficiently help those who need support. More specifically this act:

  • dramatically increases children’s access to free school meals by expanding community eligibility which would allow more high-need schools to offer free meals to all students at no charge and expands direct (automatic) certification to include Medicaid;  
  • provides critical protections for children and families with unpaid school meal fees and requires school districts to take steps to determine if families who are accruing school lunch debt are eligible for free or reduced-price meals; 
  • significantly expands access to summer meals and creates a nationwide Summer EBT program, a complementary approach that would help close the summer hunger gap; 
  • gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waiver authority during federally declared emergencies;  
  • allows for an additional reimbursable meal for children in a full day of care, helping to provide the full complement of meals young children need to grow and thrive; 
  • modernizes the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) by requiring WIC clinics to offer services over the phone and via video options and allows remote benefit issuance; 
  • extends WIC benefits to children up to 6 years old, and extends certification periods to two years for infants, children, and postpartum individuals; and 
  • creates a pilot program to allow Tribal governments to express their inherent sovereignty in the space of food and agriculture by administering the child nutrition programs. 

Our national partner, The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), has made it easy for us to be advocates. We can instantly encourage our Members of Congress to endorse the Health Meals, Healthy Kids Act by CLICKING HERE. We are encouraging you to let our Members of Congress know how important investing in these programs are to Missouri kids.

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