New Bill Aims To Give The US School Lunch System A Major Boost

A new school lunch bill — named the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act – has been proposed, aimed in part at filling a gap left by the recently passed Keep Kids Fed Act (via K12 Dive).

Since its official implementation in 1946, per K12 Academics, the National School Lunch Program has become a way for hungry children from disadvantaged communities to get at least one proper meal a day. Found in 101,000 public and non-profit institutions, the program has seen several changes through the years, each reflecting the priorities of the administration that made the amendments. K12 Academics says the changes made in 2010 under then First Lady Michelle Obama were the most significant, mandating an increase in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as limiting sodium, fat, and calories in the meals. 

But this program was disrupted in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic, which saw learning go from in-person to online. Because of this pivot, NPR explains the federal government had to change the way children were being fed. To Georgia school nutrition official Donna Martin, the changes were "a game changer."

Martin says: "We were able to give whole heads of broccoli and whole heads of cauliflower and unusual fruits and vegetables. We could give much better food."

The pandemic saw changes to the school lunch program

That COVID-era school lunch program was part of a pandemic relief package that had been signed into law in 2020. NPR reports it came with waivers that, among other things, relaxed rules governing how schools could serve lunches, who was eligible to receive them, and it even increased the amount of money schools could get back for their lunch programs. One waiver also granted students access to summer meal programs, giving them a steady food pipeline during those months. According to the Associated Press, these meals were provided to schoolchildren for free, with no eligibility requirement.

But beneficial as the program was, lawmakers ran into trouble getting the waivers approved for another school year. Eventually they came to an agreement, and the Keep Kids Fed Act was passed just before the waivers were set to expire June 30 (via NBC News). And while the act itself was given additional funding, new restrictions mean families who are eligible for free or discounted meals will have to apply for the benefits again, while those who do not qualify will have to pay. If the requirements stay the same as they would have been for the 2021-2022 school year, a family of four earning $34,450 or less each year will be offered free meals; if family income is $49,025 or less per year children can purchase meals at a reduced price: 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

The new act expands access to the school lunch program

The latest school lunch program bill — known as the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act — aims to pick up where 2010's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (which expired in 2015) left off, per K12 Dive. The bill, introduced by House Representatives Bobby Scott of Virginia and Oregon's Suzanne Bonamici, is meant, among other things, "to expand school and summer meal programs, increase access to federal nutrition programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and prevent child hunger," per the House Education and Labor Committee

Though not proposing the same no-questions-asked free school lunches offered by the pandemic waivers, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act expands the number of students who are eligible for free meals and deals with the issue of school meal debt by shielding those who have unpaid meal bills. It even gives children from families who are on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, automatic eligibility for free or subsidized school meals. 

While it may take time before it becomes law, the proposed bill already has the support of non-profit groups like the Food and Research Action Center, which hailed the proposals as "critical investments [which] will help end childhood hunger, improve health, and support academic achievement and child development."