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Biden signs law to help feed kids, but free school meals for all are going away

New law attempts to fill some of the gaps by extending waivers for summer meals and providing other flexibilities. It will not make reduced-price meals free as originally planned.
Free lunches are given out at Deering High School
Deborah Jendrasko gives out free lunches to students at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, on July 9, 2021.Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald via Getty Images file

President Joe Biden signed a law over the weekend extending some food assistance measures for children that anti-hunger advocates have called critical as more parents struggle with the rising costs of inflation. The law was signed days before the pandemic-era child nutrition waivers were set to end.

The federal waivers have provided flexibility that has helped millions of kids access meals both in school and during the summer for the last two years. The waivers were scheduled to expire June 30. 

The new law, the Keep Kids Fed Act, extends some of the dozens of waivers. But it does not extend the most groundbreaking: one that made school breakfasts and lunches free to all students regardless of their families’ incomes.

Initially, the bipartisan legislation eliminated reduced-price meals, allowing students eligible for reduced-price meals through the Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program to get free meals rather than pay 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.

After passing the House in a 376-42 vote on Thursday afternoon, the bill went before the Senate late Thursday evening, where Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pushed for the return of the reduced-price meal category. With that change made, the bill passed unanimously in the Senate as the clock ticked toward getting the bill passed in time, forcing the bill back to the House for a second vote on Friday.

Afterward, bill sponsor Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she was disappointed with the revision.

"But without this bill, we would have no support for kids at all," she said.

Having to pay for reduced-price meals is significant for many families. Before March 2020, children in families whose incomes were at or below 130% of the federal poverty level were eligible for free school meals, while those in families whose incomes were 130% to 185% of the poverty level were eligible for reduced-price meals.

Advocates have long pushed for the elimination of the reduced-price meal category, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, the spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a trade organization representing more than 50,000 school nutrition employees.

“Although 40 cents for lunch might not sound like a lot, if you have three kids and you’re trying to get them fed five days a week, that can really add up,” Pratt-Heavner said, adding that for the 2021-22 school year, a family of four would have had to have earned $34,450 or less to be eligible for free meals or $49,025 or less to have been eligible for reduced-price meals.

Congress passed the legislation Friday and Biden signed it Saturday. By extending some of the dozens of child nutrition waivers that Congress gave the Agriculture Department the authority to issue at the start of the pandemic, it enables summer meal program providers to operate with more flexibility and help schools in the coming academic year as they continue to cope with supply chain interruptions and labor shortages.

Speaking before Congress voted, advocates praised the legislation.

“Even though this bill doesn’t have everything we had hoped and dreamed, it still has a lot,” said Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign at Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end hunger and poverty. “The most important thing is they are providing relief to those families that are on the edge.”

Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the anti-hunger organization Food Research and Action Center, said it was “exciting to have a bipartisan compromise” on child nutrition programs.

“It should be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

Davis praised Congress Friday for passing the legislation, saying in a statement that it "will provide some desperately needed relief for schools, children and families as food, gas and housing prices continue to soar."

The end of universal school meals will have a deep impact not just on parents, but on schools, too. It removed the need for paperwork to qualify for free or reduced-price meals for the past two years: All students simply were offered free breakfast and lunch. The adjustment back to filling out applications might come as a surprise, or it might not be properly communicated to families, Davis said.

"I’m really worried about families that may not be aware that they’re going to have to take an affirmative step for their kids to get those meals, and there are kids across the country that will fall through the cracks."

— Lisa Davis, No Kid Hungry

“As we transition back, I’m really worried about families that may not be aware that they’re going to have to take an affirmative step for their kids to get those meals, and there are kids across the country that will fall through the cracks,” she said. 

The Keep Kids Fed Act was a last-minute compromise after the extension for the waivers was excluded from the omnibus spending bill Congress passed this year. Politico reported that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans opposed extending funding for the school meals because of its cost, about $11 billion; an aide to McConnell denied that, saying there was never a proposal for him to reject.

It was ​​introduced on Tuesday by Sens. Stabenow, and John Boozman, R-Ark., and Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. It is paid for by offsets, meaning it is budget-neutral.

It extends flexibility for summer meal program sites that has been a lifeline for many families, advocates said. Among the things it allows for: Sites can continue to offer grab-and-go meals so parents can take multiple meals for their children at one time, as opposed to having to bring their children back and forth every time to eat meals on site. There also are fewer geographical restrictions than there would be if the waivers expire. 

“Having summer meal sites in communities across the country where families who are struggling are able to easily pick up meals is going to be critical to helping support the household budget, reducing economic stress, reducing the household food budget,” FitzSimons said. “Making sure that these summer meal sites are accessible throughout communities across the country will be a critical support to alleviating the stress that so many families are feeling right now.”