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Students at Nettelhorst Elementary School, on lunch, dig into a salad bar in the school's lunchroom March 20, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Students at Nettelhorst Elementary School, on lunch, dig into a salad bar in the school's lunchroom March 20, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

'Every Child Deserves to Eat': Sanders and Omar Bill Would Provide Universal Free Public School Lunches in US

"In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, no child should be turned away from a meal if they cannot afford it," said Rep. Ilhan Omar.

Jon Queally

Citing the interlocking dynamics of food insecurity for millions of children and the benefits of nutrition and reduced stress that would result, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced sweeping new legislation Tuesday that would provide all children access to free meals at every public school in the country.

"In the richest country in history of the world, when the top 1 percent are making more than they ever have before, it is simply outrageous that 1 in 5 children will go hungry this year." —Sen. Bernie Sanders"In the richest country in history of the world, when the top 1 percent are making more than they ever have before, it is simply outrageous that 1 in 5 children will go hungry this year," said Sanders in a statement introducing the Universal School Meals Program Act (pdf).

"Today," Sanders added, "I am proud to propose legislation to make sure that no student goes hungry at a public school and to eliminate the stigma surrounding children who receive free or reduced lunch."

Co-sponsored by a number of Democrats in the House and a coalition of outside children's health and education advocates, specifically the bill would:

  • Prohibit schools participating in the school lunch program from denying any child a prepared hot lunch or breakfast;
  • Increase reimbursement rates in line with USDA’s estimated cost of producing meals to $2.72 for breakfast and $3.81 for lunch and dinner;
  • Create a $0.30 per lunch incentive for schools that procure 30 percent of their food from local sources;
  • Reimburse schools for all of their delinquent meal debt and stop the harassment of parents and students;
  • Provide an additional $60 per month per child on EBT cards to help families in need purchase food during the summer months;
  • Eliminate the two tiered reimbursement rate for the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and allow child care providers to receive the highest reimbursement rate regardless of income;
  • Empower schools to collect Title I funding information from existing resources and without putting the burden on individual families to report their income.

"There are nearly 1 in 10 households in Minnesota that struggle with food insecurity, along with millions more across the country," said Omar. "We must find a way to address this crisis. When our children have empty stomachs, they cannot learn. They have more trouble concentrating. They are more likely to be absent or tardy.  Study after study finds that access to meals increases child participation."

According to a summary of the proposed legislation:

The Universal School Meals bill would provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student–without demanding they prove they are poor enough to deserve help getting three meals a day. Currently, only students from homes with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line ($47,600 for a family of four) can enroll in free or reduced-price meals at school. Unfortunately, not all eligible students participate in the program and many students whose families struggle to make ends meet are deemed ineligible. We will eliminate the stigma some children fear of being labeled "poor" by their classmates. Every child deserves to eat.

Offering universal school meals benefits students and their parents, teachers, and schools. Multiple studies show that students with access to free breakfast have improved attendance rates and perform better in school. Other studies have shown that children with access to universal schools meals have improved health outcomes. Parents will not be troubled with redundant paperwork or, as we have seen in recent months, subjected to threats to have their children taken away or saddled with burdensome debt. Teachers, who rank hunger as a top three priorityin children's health, and school administrators can expect fewer behavioral incidents and lower suspension rates. More and more schools are seeing the benefits of offering universal school meals to all children. In fact, school participation rates in the universal school meals program more than doubled from 2014 to 2018.

Omar and Sanders a goal of the plan would be to end "school lunch shaming"—in which some kids feel embarrassed for needing food assistance or when they are called out in front of their peers for being unable to afford school lunch. One provision in the bill would bring an end to all student lunch debt.

In a video put out by the two lawmakers, local students and educators in Washington, DC explained the importance of school lunches and why access to free meals would make a world of difference, not just to those who need it most but to everyone in the classroom and for families at home.

"In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, no child should be turned away from a meal if they cannot afford it," said Omar. "I am proud to join Senator Sanders in ensuring that school meals are provided free of cost to all children all year long."


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