Representative Ilhan Omar, Senator Bernie Sanders and colleagues are set to introduce legislation on Thursday to revive one of the coronavirus pandemic era’s most popular social experiments: universal free school meals.
The bill would permanently end child hunger in schools, they argue, by offering free breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a snack to all students from preschool to high school, regardless of income.
It would also restore a federal programme that saw about 30 million kids a day getting free meals as the once-in-a-century pandemic forced a reimagining of the role and responsibility of government in providing a social safety net.
“People were able to see across the country that a programme like this can pass and get implemented and it spurred a lot of excitement,” Omar, who in 2020 authored the Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students (Meals) Act, said.
Studies show that access to free breakfast improves students’ attendance rates and academic performance in school. Free school meals are linked to better health, fewer behavioural problems and lower suspension rates.
Omar, who represents a district in Minnesota, said: “The fact that we here in the United States are having a debate on the value of providing crucial meals to our children in times where we are expecting them to exercise their brain and to receive information through their educational lessons is an embarrassment. Myself and others would consider it morally bankrupt.”
Advocates say universal free meals also remove the public shame of being a free or reduced-price lunch child, as well as the embarrassment of families who cannot pay their kids’ lunch accounts.
“I remember myself having the PIN that you have to enter to get a school lunch and all of the stuff that you have to go through, trying to hide and being really anxious about the comments and the cruelty sometimes that comes with kids bullying kids who don’t have enough resources,” Omar said. “It is a huge problem and it’s something that you carry with you even years after you leave school.”
When the free school meals programme expired last September, with families eligible based on income levels once again required to apply for their children to receive free or reduced-price food, Omar was not alone in her disappointment.
“We hear it from school administrators. We hear it from parents and young children themselves when we visited schools across our district and some of the parts of the country where we’ve been able to connect and visit. It was a catalyst for the debate and the ultimate passage of the universal school meals in Minnesota.”
Five states – California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and New Mexico – have passed laws to provide free universal school meals and more than a dozen others support similar policies, suggesting that the concept caught the imagination of educationists, health advocates and policymakers.
The Covid-19 pandemic saw government intervene with an expanded child tax credit that reduced child poverty by an estimated 40%, three stimulus cheques, a moratorium on evictions, increased unemployment benefits, and more funding for food and housing. Many on the left say the programmes proved themselves to be effective and should be maintained, pandemic or not.
Omar commented: “You would hope that would have been the lesson learned by all but we’re witnessing Republicans attempting to pull back some of those investments and refusing to see their value, even though many of the constituents that they serve more likely benefited from some of these programmes than the ones that some of us on the Democratic side represent.
“That should be telling on who and what some of our Republican colleagues care about when they talk about reviving economic opportunity for American families.”
The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023 provides additional incentives for local food procurement, including protecting and promoting small family farms, ensuring local ingredients and learning opportunities for students, and enriching local economies.
It is likely to run into a buzzsaw of Republican opposition on Capitol Hill. But Omar contends that nearly 75% of Americans support permanent universal school meals – including a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
“I know that often on the Hill people will talk about listening to their constituents,” she said. “The favourability of the constituents we collectively serve in regards to universal meals is pretty high.”
She added: “Senator Sanders has been my partner in this crusade to make sure all of our kids are fed. We routinely say it is important for us to feed the bellies of our children before we try to feed their brains.”
Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Democratic representatives Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin are among those supporting the bill.
Sanders, an independent senator for Vermont, said in a statement: “It is an international embarrassment that today, in the richest country in the history of the world, we are seeing record numbers of children and youth struggling with hunger on a daily basis.
“What we’ve seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards. It is time for Congress to pass this legislation to ensure no student goes hungry again.”