Children eat lunch

Children eat lunch at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Los Angeles on July 28, 2008.

(Photo: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Sanders, Omar Lead Charge to Ensure No Child Goes Hungry at School Again

"In the richest country in the history of the world, every child that does not have enough to eat is a policy failure and a moral outrage," said Rep. Jim McGovern, a co-sponsor of the Universal School Meals Program Act.

Demanding an end to the "international embarrassment" of childhood hunger in the world's wealthiest country, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday was among the lawmakers who introduced legislation to ensure all children in the United States have sufficient food at school without means-testing and stigmatizing those who rely on free meals.

Sanders (I-Vt.) was joined by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) in the House and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) in the Senate in unveiling the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023, eight months after the expiration of a pandemic-era program which offered meals at school to all students regardless of income.

The legislation would provide all students from preschool through high school with free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack, as well as incentivize schools to obtain food from local sources.

That pandemic-era program was credited with reducing hunger among children by more than 2% between 2020 and 2021, but was allowed to expire due to objections from Republican lawmakers, throwing nearly 30 million children back into a state of food insecurity.

"We cannot continue to prop up a grossly unjust economy in which the very rich get richer while millions of working families struggle to afford the most basic necessities of life, from paying for rent and medications to feeding their children," said Sanders. "Kids cannot learn if they are hungry and every child deserves a quality education free of hunger. What we've seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards. It is time for Congress to pass this legislation to ensure no student goes hungry again."

As inflation was rising last fall, due to means-testing, the expiration of the universal school meals program left students unable to access free food at school even if their household income was just above 130% of the poverty line—or $34,450 for a family of four.

"No child in America should be hungry—period, end of story," said McGovern on Thursday. "In the richest country in the history of the world, every child that does not have enough to eat is a policy failure and a moral outrage. We have a responsibility not just to teach kids reading and math, but to ensure they have healthy, nutritious food at school... Our kids deserve nothing less."

The legislation introduced would:

  • Increase the reimbursement rate for school meals to cover the full cost of producing meals;
  • Protect and promote small family farms to ensure local ingredients and learning opportunities for students;
  • Provide summer meals for all children regardless of income; and
  • Expand the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which currently provides reimbursements for meals to eligible children and adults at childcare centers and adult day care facilities, by allowing providers to receive the highest reimbursement rate regardless of a child or adult's income.

The bill also takes aim at the school meal debt crisis, in which families across the country "owe" a collective $19 million in school meal fees and which has led some school districts to use "lunch-shaming" tactics to collect debts. In 2019, public school students in Warwick, Rhode Island were told they would no longer receive hot meals and would instead be given sunflower-butter-and-jelly sandwiches if their families owed money, until their debts were paid off.

The legislation would put "an end to school lunch-shaming, including heinous scare tactics aimed at school meal debt collection," said Sanders' office, and would reimburse schools for all meal debt to end "the harassment of parents and students."

Omar noted that since she introduced the pandemic-era Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students (MEALS) Act in 2020, five states have passed laws to provide universal school meals.

"No child should be forced to learn on an empty stomach," said the congresswoman. "Universal school meals is not just commonsense policy; it is also extremely popular. Nearly 75% of Americans support permanent universal school meals—including majority of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. It's time to listen to the demands of our constituents and at long last make school meals free and universal for all kids."

The bill is co-sponsored by 83 other lawmakers and has been endorsed by nearly 100 food, health, and education policy organizations.

"The Universal School Meals Program Act is a win for children, a win for parents, and a win for communities," said Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center. "It's not only doable, it's the right thing to do."

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