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Sanders, Omar Introduce Bill to Permanently Provide Free Meals in Schools

The bill would make permanent an early pandemic-era universal school meal program that helped feed 30 million children.

Valerie Yanez, 4 eats a smiley face fry during her lunch period in the cafeteria at Doby Elementary School in Apollo Beach, Florida on October 4, 2019.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced a bill on Thursday seeking to permanently end child hunger in schools, expanding upon a popular early COVID pandemic policy that provided universal school meals to children.

The Universal School Meals Program Act would pay off existing school meal debt and ensure that children are provided access to free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack in schools, regardless of family income. Included in the bill is funding for community centers and child care providers to provide free meals, including during the summer, to ensure that children from all income levels are fed year round.

Crucially, the bill gets rid of the application process that families must undertake in order for their children to access meals, which has long been recognized as unnecessarily burdensome for both families and schools.

The bill is a follow up to the universal school meals program that was in place for the first two years of the pandemic, which helped feed about 30 million children in schools and through local groups but ended due to opposition from conservatives in Congress.

As a result, many children coming from households with incomes at or above 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or just about $34,450 for a family of four, lost access to free school meals, while others were forced to return to filling out burdensome paperwork that serves as a barrier to access for many families.

Since the program ended last year, research has found that 1.6 million fewer children are accessing free school meals, while schools are saying that children are increasingly going hungry due in part to soaring prices of groceries. Meanwhile, millions of children across the U.S. live in food-insecure households.

The bill has been cosponsored by 17 Democratic senators and 68 House representatives and has the support of nearly 100 food security and child advocacy groups.

“It is an international embarrassment that today, in the richest country in the history of the world, we are seeing record numbers of children and youth struggling with hunger on a daily basis,” Sanders said. “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.”

“No child should be forced to learn on an empty stomach,” said Omar. Omar noted that polling has found that universal school meals are extremely popular; in 2021, Data for Progress found that nearly three in four voters supported extending the universal school meals program.

She added that ensuring that children across the country are fed should not be a controversial proposal. “The fact that we here in the United States are having a debate on the value of providing crucial meals to our children in times where we are expecting them to exercise their brain and to receive information through their educational lessons is an embarrassment,” she told The Guardian. “Myself and others would consider it morally bankrupt.”

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