In an effort to support children struggling with food insecurities and hunger, Congress has proposed a bill that aims to make free school meals “a permanent fixture in all states,” Salon reports. If it passes, the Universal School Meals Program Act will permanently offer free healthy meals and snacks to all children in public and nonprofit private schools regardless of income.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established a policy that made it possible for school districts across the country to offer free meals to all families. Although the policy was initially set to expire in September, the agency in April extended the free meal program so that it will last through the entirety of the upcoming school year.
As Salon reports, “school meals are often more nutritious than meals eaten elsewhere or even home-packed lunches. Studies have shown that access to school meals can improve attendance, academic performance and behavior.”
Additionally, it has been reported that children from low-income communities of color eat up to half of their daily calories at school. According to Salon, “for these families, the cost of school meals, usually between US$2.48 and $2.74 depending on grade level, can add up quickly over a week, month or school year.”
Good nutrition plays a crucial role in strong academic outcomes. School meals have been shown to reduce childhood food insecurity and childhood overweight and obesity while improving overall diet quality.
In addition to curbing hunger among children, The Universal School Meals Program Act—introduced by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Gwen Moore (D-WI)—would eliminate roughly $10.9 million of unpaid school meal debt reported by 75 percent of U.S. school districts,” Salon reports.
“In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that millions of children struggle with hunger every day,” Sanders said in a statement. “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.”