Biden aims to provide free school meals for 9M more kids

(NewsNation) —  Each school day in the United States, the White House says school meals provide nourishment to about 30 million children. The Biden Administration wants to raise that number.

At the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health since President Nixon’s back in 1969, the Biden Administration announced a goal to expand access to free school meals for 9 million more children by 2032.

The Community Eligibility Provision lets high-need schools offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no charge. Any school district, group of schools in a district or schools with 40 percent or more students certified eligible for free school meals can participate in the program. According to reports, Biden wants to take the figure of 40 percent eligibility and change it to 25 percent.

In the 2021-2022 school year, the Food Research & Action Center says more than 33,000 schools in 5,543 school districts have participated in the Community Eligibility Provision.

“While school meals have demonstrated strong positive impacts on children’s nutrition and other key outcomes, we have not yet fully leveraged school meals as a core intervention to improve child health or child hunger,” the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health reads.

“When families can’t afford healthy food options, it’s harder for children to succeed in school, and it can lead to mental and physical health challenges for the whole family,” President Biden added.

Prior to Biden’s conference on hunger, the Task Force on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, a nongovernment, nonpartisan group, convened by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, Food Systems for the Future and World Central Kitchen, sent the White House their recommendations when it comes to combatting hunger.

The group said the U.S. has been riding the coattails of policies surrounding hunger for 50 years now and urged change in a number of areas.

They believe the Community Eligibility Provision should be expanded, the reduced-price meals category should be eliminated with meals being free for students qualifying for reduced lunch and a national policy should be created for forgiven lunch debt. But one of their main focuses is that Congress should fund universal free school meals.

“Congress should provide free nutritious meals (lunch, breakfast, summer, afterschool meals) for all children in the United States, removing the income test and ensuring all children receive free meals without stigma or burdensome paperwork,” their report states.

How much are school meals? Prices vary across the country. Average prices collected by the School Nutrition Association show that during the 2016-2017 school year, elementary school students paid $2.48 for lunch and $1.46 for breakfast, middle school students paid $2.68 for lunch and $1.53 for breakfast, and high school lunches cost $2.74 and breakfast for $1.55.

The School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents 50,000 school nutrition professionals nationwide, praised Biden’s pledge to increase access to free school meals.

“A healthy school meal is integral to the school day, and no child should go without due to inability to pay,” said SNA President Lori Adkins, MS, SNS, CHE. “Offering free school meals to all children ensures students are nourished for success. Research shows school meals support academic achievement and are the healthiest meals children eat.” 

The renewed push for free school meals comes as federal waivers that allowed schools to offer free meals to all students during the pandemic expired. Now, schools have returned to charging students for meals if they are not enrolled or qualify for the Free and Reduced-Price meal program.

Behind the serving line, some schools are already accumulating unpaid meal debt and stressing about how to feed students, School Nutrition Association CEO Patricia Montague said.

“School nutrition professionals have shared heartbreaking stories of families who don’t qualify for meal benefits but are still struggling to feed their children,” said Montague. “Short-staffed school nutrition teams shouldn’t have to worry about processing applications and determining which children are eligible for a free meal – they should be able to focus on nourishing all of their students. Many school meal programs have already accumulated unpaid meal debt, which can cut into education funds.”

An exact framework on how free school meals could be provided to 9 million more children by 2032 has not yet been released.