U.S. Free School Meal Program Ends June 30—What Next?

Two years ago, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, the government approved waivers that would allow students to eat school meals for free. Now, with most places around the world relaxing COVID measures, the school meal program is coming to an end.

The waivers will end on June 30, with Congress deciding not to extend the program.

Millions of students could be negatively impacted by this, especially as the cost of living rises, leaving many families struggling to make ends meet.

How Did The Free School Meals Programs Work?

The free school meals programs came into existence when Congress approved the Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers via the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March 2020 through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The package was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump.

The waivers allowed all students, regardless of their financial status, to eat breakfast and lunch at school for free. An extension of the USDA's Summer Food Service Program that eliminated geographical requirements was also included.

Millions of students have been fed for two years thanks to these waivers, offering families hit by the pandemic respite with the certainty that their children were going to be fed.

Why Are Free School Meals Programs Not Being Extended?

An extension of the waivers for another year was planned by President Joe Biden, who had included it in the $1.5 trillion spending bill he signed off on March 15. However, the extension was torpedoed by Congress, which did not include it in the major spending bill.

Democrats at the time pointed the finger at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying he was the one who had strongly opposed an extension to the waivers.

A spokesperson for Sen. McConnell told Newsweek that there wasn't "any proposal to oppose."

"No plan was brought to the four corners negotiations. One reason is that this temporary program was never proposed by the admin and still hasn't been," the spokesperson said.

"Also Secretary [Tom] Vilsack's Food and Nutrition Services budget details document does not request it and actually says that their child nutrition request for FY 2023 'assumes a return to more normal school lunch and school breakfast service'."

Politico reported an unidentified GOP leadership aide told the publication ending the programs was a way of reducing government spending and getting schools back to normal.

What Are Students From Families Struggling Financially Going To Do Now?

Students whose families are struggling financially will have to apply for free or reduced-price meals via the USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which, before the waivers, provided low-cost or free lunches to 29.6 million children.

The program provides free meals for students from households whose income is at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty line. Students from households with an income between 130 and 185 percent of the Federal poverty line can receive a reduce-price lunch.

Students from households with an income above 185 of the Federal poverty line can receive a low-cost full-price lunch.

Applying to the program requires families to share sensitive personal information, which some parents are hesitant to disclose to avoid embarrassment. The way poverty is calculated on the federal level also ignores state-to-state cost of living differences.

Some states won't see a big difference after the end of the free school meals waivers. California and Maine have passed universal free school meal programs, and states like New York, Colorado, Massachusetts and Vermont have all recently passed new laws aiming to fund universal free school meals.

But in the majority of the country, millions of children would be left with the possibility of going hungry this summer as the waivers end. Newsweek has reached out to the USDA for comment.

School Meals
The waivers allowing school across the country to offer free school meals to all students, regardless of their financial situation, is bound to expire on June 30. The photo shows a stock image of a school meal. iStock / Getty Images