The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act — a proposal for the long-awaited reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs — was introduced Wednesday by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, and Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon. The most recent reauthorization, 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, expired Sept. 30, 2015.
The legislation would expand students’ access to school meals through existing federal programs, add school meal debt protections for families, and provide grants to support school cafeterias’ operational abilities. Markup on the bill is scheduled for July 27 in the House Education and Labor Committee.
The Education and Labor Committee cited U.S. Department of Agriculture data showing 2.7 million households with children lacked reliable access to food even prior to the pandemic. Then, during the pandemic, Black and Hispanic households with children experienced food insecurity at about twice the rate of their White peers, according to the Urban Institute.
As a result of child nutrition program investments made in response to COVID-19, food shortage rates fell more than 40% among households with children between January 2021 and April 2021, Scott noted.
“The Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act takes long overdue steps to deliver on that goal by modernizing proven child nutrition programs and providing more children and families with access to nutrition assistance,” Scott said in a statement. “This is a critical opportunity to help fulfill our basic responsibility to keep children from going hungry.”
The legislation comes a month after President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act into law, extending some pandemic-era meal waivers through the end of the 2022-23 school year. Those waivers included relaxed nutritional standards to help with supply chain disruptions to cafeterias and an increase of federal reimbursement rates for school lunches.
While some lawmakers had backed an extension for expanded universal school meals, it was ultimately not included in the Keep Kids Fed Act, and the pandemic-era policy of free school meals for all will expire this summer. Advocates pushing for codifying the program have cited benefits of decreased child hunger and a reduction in stigma for low-income children receiving free meals while their more affluent peers pay for theirs.
Though a universal meals expansion isn’t part of the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, the proposed legislation would broaden eligibility for free meals.
For instance, it would expand community eligibility so more high-need school districts could provide free meals to all students and also ensure children on Medicaid automatically get free school meals. It would also address the thorny issue of school meal debts by providing protections for children and families with unpaid fees and requiring districts to determine if those building up debt are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Furthermore, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program households would automatically be eligible for reimbursement for an additional meal or snack per child under the Child and Adult Care Food Program. And children in SNAP households would automatically be eligible for CACFP as well. The reimbursement age for those experiencing homelessness or in emergency shelters would be raised from 18 to 25.
The legislation would address summer food insecurity by providing $75 per month per household via the Summer EBT Program. In addition, it would lower Summer Food Service Program area eligibility limits to provide more transportation assistance, mobile meal delivery and meal service sites in low- to middle-income neighborhoods.
Additionally, the proposal includes grants for purchasing kitchen equipment, supporting farm to school programs, and encouraging scratch cooking to expand school meal program capacity.
The reauthorization plan was welcomed by school meals advocates including the School Nutrition Association and the Food Research & Action Center.
SNA noted that it had urged key provisions in the legislation, such as expanding community eligibility and direct certification to allow more students to get free meals.
“As rising grocery prices leave families nationwide struggling to put food on the table, the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act takes critical steps to expand access to free, healthy school meals,” said SNA President Lori Adkins in a statement.
“Costs are rising for school meal programs as well, and this legislation acknowledges the need to increase funding for these programs, which support student success in and out of the classroom,” added Adkins, a former school food service director who is currently a child nutrition consultant to the Oakland Schools in Waterford, Michigan.
Praise also came from FRAC, which called it a comprehensive plan to "increase access to school meals, summer meals, and child care meals like never before."
"The bill builds upon the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has continued to highlight the importance of the federal child nutrition programs as families recover from the ongoing health and economic fallout of the pandemic," according to a statement from FRAC President Luis Guardia.