Progressives in Congress are pushing to go much bigger than President Joe Biden’s plan to expand access to school meals: Make them free for everyone.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Friday intend to introduce legislation in both chambers that would make breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks free to all school children regardless of household income levels.
The measure is now backed by nearly 400 groups, including powerful players like the School Nutrition Association, which represents local nutrition directors and food manufacturers, as well as the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.
While the last iteration of the Senate bill did not have any co-sponsors, the effort has recently picked up steam. Sanders now has nine co-sponsors including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The House bill, sponsored by Omar, has also garnered support from Democrats in the House. Neither bill has any Republican backers.
“It’s one of those things that’s been really surprising to me, as a child who’s known real hunger, to see that there are folks here in the United States who are experiencing it,” Omar told POLITICO.
The left’s pitch for universal free meals comes after a year of relaxed rules that have allowed schools to serve free meals to all students, regardless of whether they normally qualify for help. It was one way the Agriculture Department responded to the crisis last spring.
At the end of April, the Biden administration announced that schools across the country will be able to keep serving free meals to all students through June 2022 — a major expansion of access.
School leaders and some anti-hunger advocates are increasingly making the case that the policy should continue after the pandemic because it is easier to administer, increases revenue for school nutrition programs and reduces stigma for children from low-income households who need help. School nutrition programs have been hammered by school closures and hybrid schedules during the pandemic.
What’s in the bill: The bill, named the Universal School Meals Program Act, is the same as the measure introduced in the last session and would remove “reduced-price” meals. It would make all meals given in schools free to all students regardless of income or whether their families participate in other safety net programs. It would also increase reimbursement rates to schools for each free meal.
The measure would also provide an incentive of up to 30 cents per meal to schools that get 25 percent of their food from local sources. The bill would define that as food produced within state lines or within 250 miles of the school or school district.
Such an incentive would provide local farmers with up to $3.3 billion in additional income per year and increase local food sales by up to 28 percent, proponents of the bill predict.
The bill would also mandate that schools stop collecting and assigning school meal debt and would have the Agriculture secretary establish a program to reimburse outstanding debt. The goal is to stop “lunch shaming,” where schools try to collect owed debt like withholding grades, canceling school dance privileges or marking students with an “I Need Lunch Money” stamp — tactics that have sparked broad public outrage.
The bill would also increase the payments of Summer EBT and expand the Child and Adult Care Food Program.
Is the price right? Omar’s bill does not allocate any specific funding and has not received a score from the Congressional Budget Office. The potential high price tag of a universal free meals program has received criticism from Republicans, including Senate Agriculture ranking member Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas.
School meals programs cost nearly $14 billion in fiscal year 2020, down nearly $19 billion in 2019, largely because fewer meals were served when schools were closed.
But Omar said the need for providing meals is too great to be concerned about the cost, though she expects it won’t break the bank.
“When you make programs universal, you get rid of a lot of administrative costs,” Omar said
Comparing Biden’s plan: Biden recently announced his American Families Plan as the second half of his suite of infrastructure proposals. In the package, he urges Congress to expand some nutritional assistance programs.
However, Biden’s proposal, which would need congressional approval, is more limited in scale. Biden suggests investing $17 billion to expand free meals for students by increasing the reimbursement rates for schools participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows high-poverty schools to provide meals free of charge to all of their students. It would also make far more elementary schools eligible for universal free meals.
Biden’s plan also proposes making the summer Pandemic EBT program permanent. But it would remain only available to those already receiving free and reduced-price meals.
What’s next: Proponents of the bill say the goal is to introduce the measure now to push efforts to go further in the next reconciliation package. But they are not ruling out other options, such with a stand-alone bill or child nutrition reauthorization.