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“No Child Should Go Hungry”: Democrats Push to Extend Universal School Meals

The universal school meal program is set to end at the end of this month, leaving millions of children at risk.

A child puts her mask back on after finishing lunch at a socially distanced table in the cafeteria of Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Democrats in both chambers of Congress are urging House and Senate leadership to help extend a school lunch waiver program that’s kept millions of children from going hungry over the past two years.

In a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last Friday, a group of nine Democrats led by Rep. Katie Porter (D-California) asked the Democratic leader to schedule a vote to extend waivers for school meals for this week, ahead of the program’s scheduled expiration date on June 30.

“With higher food costs forcing families to stretch their budgets, free school meals can bring down costs for families by hundreds of dollars each month,” the lawmakers wrote. “The end of this program will cause immediate hardship for many families who will be forced to purchase full-price meals at school or pay for food at inflated prices from local grocery stores.”

“No child should go hungry in our country, especially in our schools,” the Democrats added.

Also on Friday, 33 senators sent a letter to leaders asking them to include the universal school meal program in upcoming bills on food price and pandemic relief and create a nationwide program to provide families with children to receive additional electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards in the summer. The letter’s signatories included Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).

The universal meal program, which began in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enables about 10 million kids to access free meals — including breakfast, lunch and dinner, in some places — from their schools and local groups through the academic year and when school is out for the summer.

Children from families with any financial background could access the program, removing a financial verification process that burdened school nutrition programs and excluded families making over salary limits for school meal programs but still struggling to put food on the table. The program also helped to stave off the stigma faced by children who previously qualified for free meals before the pandemic.

Advocates of school meal programs say that the program is especially necessary as inflation soars across the board, with groceries up 12 percent from last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Despite warnings that millions of students could go hungry because of the program’s expiration, Congress didn’t include funding for extending the program in a spending package earlier this year — thanks in part to opposition by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), according to Democrats. Though McConnell has not publicly commented on the program, a GOP leadership aide told Politico that the program is no longer necessary after two years into the pandemic.

But, thanks largely to conservative opposition to programs like the expanded child tax credit, however, many children could still be at risk or are already experiencing food insecurity, especially as wages stagnate or effectively decrease. After the expanded tax credit ended in December 2021, child poverty rates increased by 41 percent. Data shows that millions of low-income families are still dependent on school meals.

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