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Students grab meals at a lunch counter

Students grab meals at the lunch counter at the Michael Kors Cafe at Burlington High School in Burlington, Vermont on March 16, 2021. (Photo by Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

'What's There to Even Discuss?' Omar Says Free, Universal School Meals Should Be Permanent

"We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still deliver big things. And we can feed tens of millions of hungry kids while we do it."

Jake Johnson

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar argued Friday that free school meal waivers enacted early in the pandemic to forestall a surge in child hunger should be made permanent, a policy change that she characterized as a political, economic, and moral no-brainer.

"We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people can still deliver big things," said Omar (D-Minn.), the whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "And we can feed tens of millions of hungry kids while we do it. What's there to even discuss?"

"Three out of every four teachers say they see students regularly come to school hungry."

Late last month, the House and Senate passed compromise legislation that only extends the existing school meal waivers through the summer instead of through the coming school year, which the GOP opposed. Originally approved in mid-2020, the waivers have allowed schools to drop regulatory burdens such as income-based eligibility requirements in order to deliver free meals to as many students as possible.

In an op-ed for MinnPost on Friday, Omar—who helped negotiate the inclusion of the waivers in a sweeping coronavirus relief package—noted that "the results were a resounding success in Minnesota and across the country."

"The MEALS Act gives schools the flexibility to make changes to their meal program to ensure their ability to provide meals to students by allowing the increase of federal costs for the purpose of providing meals," Omar wrote. "Approximately 22 million kids relied on school meals before the pandemic, and it's estimated that the MEALS Act and resulting waivers helped an additional 10 million get fed. It also kept people employed preparing and delivering food for kids who need it."

"This bill was a shining example of the government working at one of its core functions—making sure the American people don't go hungry," the congresswoman added. "And it was a reminder that our country can do amazing things when our government works as intended."

But with the waiver extension set to expire in a matter of weeks, Omar is calling for a "lasting solution" that would "provide school meals free of charge to any student who wants it—as many districts have done during the pandemic."

"This would reduce burdensome paperwork requirements and make sure that no child in the wealthiest country in the world goes hungry at school. It's also overwhelmingly supported by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. That's why I have introduced a bill—along with the support of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Tina Smith and leaders like Valerie Castile—to do just that."

Known as the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, the legislation would make free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack available to all school children in the U.S., no matter their family's income. The bill would also completely eliminate school meal debt, which impacts children across the country.

"Supply chain issues and the rising cost of food are making the hunger crisis worse," Omar wrote Friday. "Food prices are expected to increase up to 7.5% this year, stretching already tight family budgets. Some 13 million children already faced hunger in our country before the pandemic. Three out of every four teachers say they see students regularly come to school hungry, and a majority of them regularly buy food for students out of their own pockets."

"And we know that getting nutritious meals doesn't just prevent hunger," the Minnesota Democrat added. "It has benefits for a child's physical and mental development. Studies show that students who show up hungry to class lose the ability to concentrate and have worse academic performance. This can have lifelong consequences."

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