School meals have never been more important than during the era of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, 30 million school children relied on school meals. Now with a protracted economic downturn, more and more students will qualify for the school meals program. For many kids, sadly, these may be the only nutritious meals they will receive that day.

Throughout the spring and summer months, many schools have provided meals under the school meals program at no cost without needing to verify the family’s income. As the pandemic continues into next school year, the need for free school meals will only grow as more families will financially struggle and become food insecure. We know that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people of color; both Black and Hispanic households with children reported food insecurity rates twice that of white households with children. Nearly four in ten Black and Hispanic households with children report not having enough to eat, nearly twice the amount of white households with children.

In the Senate COVID stimulus package, the Trump administration and Senate Republicans are attempting to leverage financial support to force schools to reopen next school year against public health advice. If they really cared about children’s health and wellbeing, and the tireless school food service staff working to provide these children with nutritious meals, they would instead be prioritizing nutrition for all kids: universal school meals.

We are urging Congress to instead strongly support the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act, introduced by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott today, that provides a nutritious breakfast and lunch this coming school year for all children. If enacted, this bill would provide free meals to students regardless of their family’s income. The bill also lets schools operating summer feeding and afterschool programs to serve all children without having to certify the eligibility of each individual child.

Schools are under tremendous pressure to develop safe plans for reopening schools and restructuring how meals will be provided. This bill would significantly ease the administrative burden that schools are facing for verifying which kids are eligible for the program.

As the pandemic drags on, more children are likely to qualify, creating a significant administrative burden for schools as eligibility fluctuates with the economic downturns. There’s simply no good reason to be imposing more paperwork on struggling school districts to qualify kids for the food they need.

In addition, for many families the current economic downturn is deep, so there may be many children who are on the cusp of eligibility who would be left out without universal meals. Schools are also still reeling from deficit spending in the spring to feed children and a federally funded universal meals program would guarantee these programs remain solvent. And providing free meals for all children removes any stigma children face from participating in the program.

Moreover, with Rep. Scott’s important legislation, schools that meet the updated nutrition standards for school meals continue to receive additional reimbursement. As we expand access for meals, we must also ensure that schools continue to meet strong nutrition standards so that children receive more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with foods lower in salt and saturated fat, and meet reasonable ranges for calories. A recent study found these updated nutrition standards decreased the risk of childhood obesity among children in poverty by half over five years.

It should be obvious that kids need healthy food in a pandemic, and that our children are already dealing with numerous threats to their wellbeing. A school breakfast and lunch that will help them thrive in difficult times is the least that Congress should do for struggling families.