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Universal Free School Lunches Latest Pandemic-Era Initiative To Be Discontinued, 10 Million Children Affected

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The latest pandemic-initiated benefit program is coming to an end, as federal funding provided by the Universal School Meals Program Act expired on June 30 and will not be renewed. Universal free lunches are funded through Sept. 30, and their sunset after that is expected to affect around 10 million children.

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Established at the beginning of the pandemic to diminish food insecurity, the universal free school meals program provided nutritious meals to kindergarten-to-grade-12 students, regardless of family income, who may have previously been denied meals at school or were stranded at home while schools were closed.

In April 2021, the United States Department of Agriculture extended the program through June 30.

At the end of June, U.S. President Joe Biden put measures into place to keep student meal funding going during the summer and beyond. The Keep Kids Fed Act was signed by the president prior to the June 30 expiration of the Universal School Meals Program, ensuring 2022 summer food programs would be funded until Sept. 30.

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However, most schools will have to resume the old three-tiered system that has some families not paying at all, some receiving discounted lunches and others paying full price, according to The Conversation. Prior to the pandemic, the National School Lunch Program required that families fall below specific income thresholds and fill out the necessary paperwork in order for students to receive this benefit.

According to Forbes, Congress is cutting back on pandemic-related spending, and Republicans have refused to extend the Universal School Meal Program, calling it a temporary helper during the pandemic. As a result, the expanded funding for free school lunches was not included in the latest $1.5 trillion government spending bill signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11.

An aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that McConnell and other Republicans think schools no longer need the pandemic-era food provisions, The Washington Post reported. They say that with school closures no longer in effect, these programs have been rendered unnecessary.

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That won’t stop some Democrats from pushing for further extensions or new legislation. Last week, two representatives announced plans to make more permanent the Agriculture Department’s child nutrition programs, including school lunch programs and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which already serves about half of all infants born in the U.S., according to the USDA website.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Civil Rights/Human Services subcommittee chair, have drafted new legislation that increases eligibility for free school lunches.

Rep. Scott says child hunger can be reduced considerably by the government investing in child nutrition programs. “From January 2021 through April 2021, food shortage rates among households with children fell by more than 40 percent — thanks to the investments in several covid-19 relief packages,” said Scott, according to The Washington Post.

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According to the Dayton Daily News, a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that 90% of schools took advantage of the increased funding and waivers provided by the lunch relief program during the pandemic. And as Forbes reports, a Data For Progress survey found that 44% of American voters surveyed support extending universal free meals permanently.

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