What The New Keep Kids Fed Act Means For Free School Lunch

President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act on Saturday morning; a bill which will extend much of the free school lunch program put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic to make food more accessible for public school students (via NPR). The bill passed despite being excluded from an earlier spending package and facing last minute threats made by certain senators over anti-discrimination measures for LGBTQIA+ students built into the program (per The Kansas City Star). While the bill renews many provisions which were set to expire at the end of the month, it does not completely extend the program. This means that many families will have to brace for changes to their meal planning.

In 2020, when schools were forced to transition to at-home learning, the government introduced emergency measures which dropped many requirements of the federal free school lunch program. According to NPR, the 2020 initiative enabled all students to get free breakfast and lunch regardless their family's household income. This allowed schools to make food substitutions that didn't adhere strictly to standard nutritional requirements due to shortages. It also provided larger reimbursements to schools and made it easier for districts to distribute meals to families over the summer. This allowed parents to pick up grab-and-go meals for their children (via CNN). The Associated Press (AP) reports that the changes led to an increase of 10 million students receiving free lunches last school year to a total of 30 million kids.

What's Changing?

Despite ongoing supply-chain struggles and rising food prices, it appeared as if the program would not be renewed after members of the Senate blocked an extension back in March (per CNN). The bill was approved this week as a modified program created by a bi-partisan team of lawmakers. While lauded as an important step for fighting student hunger, The AP reports that it will likely cause confusion due to the eligibility changes and the delayed renewal.

NPR explains that the new program will maintain waivers for nutritional substitutions to combat supply and cost issues for schools and that districts with small populations of low-income families will still be given more flexibility in their summer meal programs, the requirements for free meals will be reverting back to its pre-pandemic system come fall. This means that families will need to apply for subsidized meals by providing financial information to the district, and may end up having to pay a reduced price for lunches when they have been receiving free meals in the past. The Guardian predicts that this could cause some children to go hungry or accrue school lunch debt as parents may not realize that they need to apply.

While the law is seen as a relief and is expected to keep many low-income students fed and performing better in school, families should be aware that they may have to navigate renewed levels of bureaucracy to ensure their children's nutritional wellbeing through the public school system.