Legislation introduced yesterday as part of the House of Representatives’ Build Back Better Act—a $3.5 trillion package—makes historic investments in the school meals program which fed 30 million children before the pandemic and played an outsized role in feeding communities during the pandemic.
Last year, Congress temporarily authorized free school meals for all children in response to the pandemic, but, if Congress does not act, millions of children will lose access to free school meals next school year. The House bill expands free school meals to an additional 9 million children. Other laudable investments include $500 million for school kitchen improvements and providing food assistance to 21 million more children in the summer months. Although the bill falls short of providing healthy school meals for all children, as CSPI has advocated, this investment is an excellent step in the right direction.
In addition, continued financial support for schools to meet nutrition standards is more important than ever. Schools have made tremendous progress since the passage of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010, but that progress stalled during the previous administration. It took a lawsuit brought by CSPI and others to preserve the progress made under the Obama administration. Schools need financial help to meet the standards, particularly during COVID-19, and the $634 million investment for schools in the bill can support this.
Absent from the otherwise strong package is emergency funding relief to help schools cover rising costs and rebuild their labor force, which has been hard hit during the pandemic. The package also does not include the White House’s original call for removing the federal ban on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for people convicted of a drug-related felony. Though many states waive this cruel and short-sighted prohibition, it’s time to end it once and for all.
We commend the House for providing significant investments for school meals and urge Congress to pass this legislation quickly.