Nice Time! Biden Administration Gonna Feed All The Children, Not Just The Really, Really Poor Ones
Here's some good news for people who don't like it when children go hungry. The USDA announced Tuesday that it's extending the universal free lunch services through the 2021 to 2022 school year. This will (positively!) impact the estimated 12 million kids who experience food insecurity. It also (positively!) impacts all the children.
In March, the USDA said the waivers that made school meals more flexible to administer during the COVID-19 pandemic would extend only to September 30. This left schools and families uncertain about what would happen during the next school year.
Child nutrition program waivers, which aimed to cut through red tape to allow kids to eat free even outside normal meal times, were implemented at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when millions of families faced financial strain, hunger and hardship. The waivers allowed schools and community organizations to adapt programs to better meet the needs of children and families.
The waivers provided access to free, nutritious meals for all children, which they could pick up outside of traditional group settings and rigid mealtimes. Parents could pick up multiple days of food at once for students learning at home. Meals in many cases were also dropped off at a student's home if they were remote learning either part or full-time.
"States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America's schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. "This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It's a win-win for kids, parents and schools."
Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at Share Our Strength, a charity combating hunger, said the advance notice regarding the upcoming school year offers much-needed lead time for schools and community organizations to plan and budget. According to Davis, last year was more chaotic than necessary. This was because the previous White House squatter's administration resisted calls to extend the benefit last summer. This was while childhood hunger rates were rising to the highest levels in decades.
This is a huge deal. All K-12 student lunches will be free through spring 2022 I've written for years about "scho… https://t.co/Db5B4O2Hs4— Heather Long (@Heather Long)1618949281.0
It apparently bugged the past horror show administration that, as the pandemic raged through the nation, families were able to pick up free meals at whichever school was closest to them. They also weren't required to provide evidence of their poverty. Keep in mind that Betsy DeVos was still Education secretary, and she famously boasted about telling Bernie Sanders to his face that “there's no such thing as a free lunch." (Not sure why she was so proud of saying this to Sanders' face. It's not an especially scary face.) In fairness, though, the school lunch program falls under the purview of the Agriculture secretary. That was Sonny Perdue, who Made School Lunches Great Again! by freeing children from the tyranny of vegetables, we guess.
Anyway, the waiver increased the reimbursement rate to schools from $3.60 per lunch served at the free rate to the summer rate of $4.25. This helped fund the higher costs for boxes and bags for to-go options, increased transportation and labor costs, as well as additional personal protective equipment. They haven't yet announced the reimbursement rates for the next school year's national school lunch program.
Universal free lunch programs can also address the “lunch debt" crisis, where K through 12 students didn't have enough money to pay for meals in the school cafeteria so they were racking up debt. According to 2018 survey of 1,550 districts nationwide by the School Nutrition Association, 75 percent of US school districts had unpaid student meal debt. Betsy DeVos could've covered that debt with the change from her couch cushions. Sonny Perdue could've chipped in, as well.
A family of four had to make less than $32,630 a year to qualify for free lunch under the National School Lunch Program. That's a set level across every state, except for Alaska and Hawaii. Kids who lived in high-cost regions, such as Washington DC, Los Angeles, and New York, for example, were at a disadvantage compared to (mostly white) children in rural areas. We're sure that was a coincidence.
Universal free lunch for schoolchildren is perhaps the very least that a self-proclaimed “exceptional" nation can do. Let's make this permanent.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."