School Meal Bill Aims To Keep Kids Fed After June 30

As the free school meals programs that allowed millions of students to eat for free for the last two years of pandemic come to an end, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to keep this important lifeline to struggling families running with a new bill.

On Tuesday, a array of politicians presented the "Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022," a bill that aims at amending and extending the government-approved pandemic-era waivers.

Under the Child Nutrition COVID-19 Waivers approved by Congress via the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March 2020 through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—signed into law by then-President Donald Trump—all students, regardless of their families' financial status, were entitled to eat a school meal for free.

The programs are due to come to an end on June 30.

Reimbursement rates for school food programs were also increased, and the USDA's Summer Food Service Program was extended to eliminate geographical requirements.

However, Congress failed to approve an extension to the waivers for another year, which was excluded in the major spending bill signed off by President Joe Biden on March 15. As a result of the sudden cutting off of the waivers, millions of children could go hungry this summer.

Those presenting the bill were: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Chairwoman and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan; Republican Senator John Boozman of Arkansas; House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia; and Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.

Under the Keep Kids Fed Act presented on Tuesday, the bipartisan group of lawmakers ask that the waivers be extended through the summer, allowing meal deliveries and grab-and-go options for students, and that increased reimbursement rates continue through the 2022-23 school year.

The lawmakers' goal is to pass the measure before the waivers formally expires.

"Time is running out. My agreement with Senator Boozman, Representative Scott and Representative Foxx will help keep kids fed and is fully paid for," said Stabenow in a statement following the bill text's release.

"With 90 percent of our schools still facing challenges as they return to normal operations, this will give our schools and summer meal programs much-needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues. Congress needs to act swiftly to pass this critical help."

"As I visit with our school nutrition professionals, it is quite clear that they need continued flexibilities to cope with ongoing supply chain issues," said Sen. Boozman in a statement.

"I am pleased that after lengthy bipartisan negotiations we were able to come to an agreement to extend the waivers in a manner that is fully paid for."

"The bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act will empower schools to weather supply chain problems and inflation with targeted and temporary aid to schools," said Rep. Foxx in a statement.

"This budget-neutral legislation will also put our country's school nutrition programs back on the right track and keep the permanent pandemic narrative from being used to expand school meal programs beyond their intended purpose. This legislation will uphold our responsibility to taxpayers and abide by the principle that aid should be targeted and temporary while also helping students truly in need."

However, the bill fails to extend what had made the pandemic-era waivers so revolutionary, namely the indiscriminate free school meal allowance given to every student regardless of their financial status and family's income.

Under the proposed bill, students whose families are struggling financially will still have to fill out applications to qualify for the reimbursement of school meals, something that is considered to put off certain families from applying, as shame and embarrassment can make parents hesitant to disclose their personal financial situation.

Rep. Scott wrote on Twitter that the bill "does not go as far as I would like in supporting our nation's student" but "it is a meaningful step," he added.

Newsweek has reached out to Sen. Stabenow, Sen. Boozman, Rep. Scott and Rep. Foxx for comment.

A USDA spokesperson spoke to Newsweek on how the end of the waivers is going to affect American families and students: "Without Congressional action, our tools to assist program operators are much more limited."

"USDA is looking at every tool at its disposal to ease the burden the pandemic has caused on school districts, but the magnitude of this problem requires Congressional action," the spokesperson added.

"School districts and American families need relief and Congress can provide that relief. USDA has announced a few narrow program flexibilities that we can offer, and we stand ready to work with states to leverage those to meet local needs.

"We are also working diligently to assess how we can further support school food programs in the next school year. Our passion for serving children remains at full force, and we will move forward together to ensure kids get the nutritious meals they need and deserve."

Free school meals
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to extend pandemic-era waivers which allowed millions of students to be fed at the peak of COVID-19. In this photo, a returning student receives pre-packaged lunch at Hollywood High School on April 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images