Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) Friday announced legislation to expand on the success of the universal free lunch approach recently extended by the USDA, and bring long-term relief to millions of food-insecure families. The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all school children regardless of income, eliminate school meal debt, and strengthen local economies by incentivizing local food procurement.
The Universal School Meals Program Act is cosponsored in the Senate by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); and in the House by Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Andre Carson (D-Ind.), Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), and J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.).
The bill is also endorsed by over 360 organizations, including the School Nutrition Association, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Hunger Free America, UnidosUS, Children’s Defense Fund, and National Action Network.
“In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that millions of children struggle with hunger every day,” said Sen. Sanders. “Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger. What we’ve seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards. I am proud to introduce this legislation alongside my colleagues to ensure no student goes hungry again.”
“No child in the richest country in the world should face hunger,” said Rep. Omar. “One in six children in my state of Minnesota don’t know where their next meal will come from. Families across Minnesota and nationwide are still struggling from the fallout of the pandemic, and children are often bearing the brunt of this crisis. I am proud to partner with my colleagues to implement a universal school meals program to ensure all of our children have the nutrition they need to succeed.”
“Many children in New York and across the country rely on school meals to keep from going hungry,” said Sen. Gillibrand. “This important legislation will deliver essential resources for school meal programs to ensure no student is ever denied a school meal. With USDA currently providing universal school meals through the 2021-2022 school year, now is the time to take bold action and make universal school meals a permanent reality. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I will fight for the inclusion of the Universal School Meals Program Act in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization and look forward to a robust debate on this important legislation. I thank Senator Sanders for his leadership to end child hunger and I will keep fighting to pass the Universal School Meals Program Act so that all children have a reliable source of meals and schools have the resources to administer these critical programs.”
“I remember the challenges of keeping my three kids fed, but I felt reassured knowing that when they were in school, they would receive nutritious meals,” said Rep. Moore. “Every student should have the opportunity to learn, grow, and focus in school, without worrying about where their next meal will come from. It’s why I am so honored to join my colleagues in introducing the Universal School Meals Program Act.”
The USDA estimates that 12 million children in the United States lived in food insecure homes at the height of the pandemic. By offering universal school meals this past year, schools across the nation have played an important role in combatting the spike in child hunger brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Through a combination of federal waivers, many schools for the first time were able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of their income. Following this success, the USDA recently announced it will extend these waivers for the 2021-2022 school year and continue to provide meals to all students for free.
While the extension of these short-term waivers will come as a relief to many families, without a permanent solution to provide free meals to all students, schools will eventually have to revert to the complicated myriad of paperwork and programs that leave out or discourage too many children from accessing meals throughout the day.
Almost 30 million children in this country rely on free or reduced-price lunch. If the pandemic waivers are allowed to expire, many students from homes with incomes just above 130 percent of the poverty line, $34,450 for a family of four, will not be able to receive free meals at school. Research supports universal access to school meals. When all students are able to access breakfast and lunch at school, all students benefit.
The Universal School Meals Program Act provides for the long-term with the most cost-effective and inclusive model for ensuring all students have access to nutritious meals without overwhelming barriers such as stigma, burdensome paperwork, or threats to have their children taken away.
Prior to the pandemic, school participation rates in the universal school meals program more than doubled from 2014 to 2018. This legislation builds off that success and offers major benefits to students, families, public schools, and communities. Studies show that students with access to free breakfast have improved attendance rates and perform better in school. Free and accessible school meals have also shown to reduce financial stress for students and families, improve health outcomes in students, reduce stigma associated with the programs, and lead to fewer behavioral incidents and lower suspension rates.
For communities, the inclusion of local foods in school meal programs protects and promotes small family farms, enriches local economies, and provides nutritious ingredients for our kids. Every dollar spent on local food generates over two dollars in local economic activity, and local food programs provide hands-on education about proper nutrition, regional crops, traditional Native foods, farming techniques, and environmental stewardship. That is why this legislation provides up to a $0.30 per meal incentive for schools that procure 25 percent of their food from local sources. If all schools met the 25 percent local food criteria for school meals, it would provide local farmers with an additional $3.3 billion in income per year, a 28 percent increase in local food sales – an enormous investment for our rural communities.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 75 percent of school districts reported carrying school lunch debt, which in some cases can be hundreds of thousands of dollars and has led to reports of heinous and unacceptable scare tactics to collect. This bill would reimburse schools for all of their delinquent school meal debt and stop the harassment of parents and students.
The Biden administration recently announced more than 30 million children will get nutrition assistance over the summer as a result of the American Rescue Plan. Under the Universal School Meals Program Act, nutrition assistance over the summer would be made permanent for all children regardless of income, including for families that struggle to get their children to meal sites, often an issue in rural areas. This bill also expands the number of allowable meal services for child care providers, and empowers schools to collect relevant data using existing resources instead of putting the burden on individual families to report their income.