Senate Passes Amended Version of Pandemic-Era Free School Meal Bill

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Senate lawmakers on Thursday voted to pass an amended version of a bill that would extend funding for COVID-era school meal waivers for children across the country until 2023.

The legislation is part of a wider effort to keep kids from going hungry amid soaring inflation and supply chain issues across the country.

House lawmakers on Thursday voted to pass the legislation in a 376–42 vote and the Senate passed an amended version of the bill on Thursday, according to a press release. It will now go to the House for final passage.

The bill was ​​introduced Tuesday by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), and Reps. Bobby Scott, (D-Va.) and Virginia Foxx (R-N.C).

It would be paid for by offsets, meaning it is budget-neutral.

Specifically, the bill titled the “Keep Kids Fed Act” will allow students with a family income at or below 185 percent of the poverty level to qualify for free or reduced-cost meals for the 2022–23 school year.

It will also fully extend all waivers through summer 2022 to allow meal deliveries and grab-and-go options for students and increase the reimbursement rate for school lunch and school breakfast to help offset the increased cost of food and operating expenses.

The amended bill will also extend school meal program administrative and paperwork flexibilities through the 2022–2023 school year, helping schools to continue meal operations despite ongoing supply chain disruptions.

Extra Help

Schools will also receive an additional 40 cents for each lunch and 15 cents for each breakfast served to help offset increased food and operating expense costs. An additional 10 cents per meal or snack will be provided for Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) daycares and home providers.

“When combined, these actions will help offset increase costs for providers,” according to Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who have both pushed for Senate lawmakers to extend child nutrition waivers before they expired on June 30.

Prior to the pandemic, meals at schools were either free, reduced, or full price for students, with the National School Lunch Program providing discounted or free lunches to 29.6 million children each school day in 2019.

During the pandemic, however, waivers meant that all meals were free regardless of a student’s family’s income.

Despite continuous renewals to the waivers, Congress opted not to keep up the federal funding needed to sustain the program in March 2022 and left it out of the $1.5 trillion spending package signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11.

The bill passed by Senate lawmakers includes only free or reduced-price meal options, meaning school meals will no longer be completely free for all students.

Still, advocates have praised the bill, which totals about $3 billion.

‘Relief to Families on the Edge’

“Even though this bill doesn’t have everything we had hoped and dreamed, it still has a lot,” Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of the No Kid Hungry campaign told NBC News. “The most important thing is they are providing relief to those families that are on the edge.”

Stabenow said schools and parents across the country can now “rest easy knowing that help is on the way so kids can continue getting school and summer meals.”

“Congress is making sure school and summer meal programs get much-needed support to deal with ongoing foodservice issues and keep kids fed. I look forward to the President signing this into law.”

Boozman noted that the legislation will ensure that “kids have access to healthful, nutritious meals this upcoming school year and in the summer months without putting an additional burden on taxpayers” while pointing to rising food prices and supply chain issues.

“It is temporary, targeted relief that should be signed as soon as it reaches the President’s desk,” said Boozman.

Katabella Roberts

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Katabella Roberts is a reporter currently based in Turkey. She covers news and business for The Epoch Times, focusing primarily on the United States.