A Vermont bill that would make school meals free for all students is just one example of how anti-hunger advocates are pushing in the direction of universal school meals.
Concerns over lunch shaming, unpaid meal debt and proposals from the Trump administration to tighten eligibility for nutrition programs are being met with efforts to cover meal costs for more children who don’t already qualify for free meals.
Vermont has a “visionary approach,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy organization. But she added, “There are a lot of conversations about how we can maximize access.”
Meanwhile, she adds, the Community Eligibility Program, in which schools with high percentages of students qualifying for free meals extend that program to all students, has “shed the light” on the benefits of not having to determine at the school level which students can or cannot receive a hot meal.
‘Part of the conversation’
In Oregon, last year, legislation passed that provides $40 million to expand free meals to students in two ways. First, it provides funds for schools that can’t afford to take advantage of CEP because they have a lower percentage of students eligible for reimbursable meals. Second, it increases eligibility for a free or reduced-price meal from 185% of the federal poverty line — about $47,600 for a family of four — to 300%, or $77,250.
The fund was part of the state's Student Success Act legislative package, which is expected to add $1 billion to the state’s education budget each year. Because it’s tied to a new tax, the updated rules will go into effect this fall.
“We wanted to make sure nutrition was part of that conversation,” says Matt Newell-Ching, public affairs director with Partners for Hunger-Free Oregon, an advocacy organization.
When the legislature convened a Joint Committee on Student Success in 2018, Newell-Ching said, lawmakers expected to hear recommendations related to instruction and curriculum. But they also heard concerns related to housing and food insecurity, he said.
"Kids coming to school frankly were born during the peak of the recession,” he said, adding there were increased reports from teachers about problems managing classrooms and students experiencing trauma. “That shifted the thinking.”
Oregon is also one of eight states that has eliminated the reduced-price category for families whose incomes fall between 130% and 185% of poverty. And last week, the School Nutrition Association, which represents those managing school meal programs, released its 2020 position paper asking Congress to eliminate the category nationally. A few other states have eliminated that category just for breakfast or just for lunch in some grades.
At the federal level, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, in October introduced the Universal School Meals Act, which would prohibit schools participating in the National School Lunch Program from denying a school breakfast or lunch to any student.
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, said the organization doesn’t take positions on specific state bills but “has long supported universal meals.”
More flexibility proposed
Efforts to provide more students free meals are also taking place in the midst of a debate over the nutritional standards applying to those meals. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue ate lunch with 2nd graders at a Texas elementary school and then released his latest proposal for giving states and districts more control over the meals they serve.
Enjoyed a delicious lunch with second graders at Castle Hills Elementary in San Antonio, TX. ???????????? We had chicken, broccoli, blueberries, mashed potatoes, and of course, Texas ruby red grapefruit. pic.twitter.com/lspP9msRuf— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) January 17, 2020
Coming on Michelle Obama’s birthday, the announcement was cast by some as a further effort by the Trump administration to back off the stricter school meal guidelines championed by the former first lady under the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The proposal “threatens the progress we’ve made toward improving nutrition in schools,” Sen. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said in a press release. “By reversing those standards, this rule ignores the overwhelming scientific research showing that nutritious school meals improve the lives, health and academic performance of students.”
The new plan would allow schools to cut back on the servings of fruits and vegetables required under the 2010 law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture “is committed to implementing measures that reduce food waste in schools and promote efficient school food service operations,” according to the proposed rule.
The plan builds on regulations issued in 2018 that loosened requirements related to dairy, sodium content and whole grains. SNA has been supportive of those changes.
In a press release following the event at Castle Hills Elementary in San Antonio, SNA President Gay Anderson said the relaxed rules have helped nutrition professionals manage challenges including food waste, reduced meal participation and higher costs while still preparing “nutritious meals that appeal to diverse student tastes.”
In a statement released Wednesday, SNA expressed support for aspects of the new proposal, such as returning to a five-year review cycle for programs consistently in compliance and having additional flexibility over meal planning and a la carte sales. The organization will also collect feedback from members.
Proposed SNAP rules
School nutrition experts and advocates are also keeping watch on another proposal by the Trump administration that would affect students in poor families and those at schools participating in CEP.
The administration proposes to eliminate what it calls a loophole in which states can automatically make families eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — and, therefore, free or reduced-price meals — if they receive minimal assistance, like a brochure, through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare program. The provision is called “broad-based categorical eligibility.”
Under the proposal, a family would have to receive at least $50 a month in TANF cash or non-cash benefits, such as subsidized employment, work support or child care, for at least six months in order to be eligible for SNAP.
According to the USDA’s analysis, almost a million students would no longer automatically qualify for free meals through SNAP. Of those, about 445,000 would still be income-eligible for free meals, 497,000 would switch from the free to the reduced-price category, and about 40,000 would pay full price.
CEP allows schools to offer free meals to all students if at least 40% of their students qualify based on family income. Because most qualify through the SNAP program, the proposal would affect those percentages.
In a blog post last October, FitzSimons and Ellen Vollinger, FRAC’s legal/food stamp director, wrote the plan could increase unpaid meal debt. “And in the districts that do not provide meals to children who do not have money in their school meals account, children will be sitting in classrooms hungry,” they wrote.
The USDA is still reviewing the thousands of comments that have been submitted on the plan, and any change would unlikely affect schools participating in the program for the 2020-21 school year.
In a commentary last week, Brandon Lipps, deputy undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the USDA, said the vast majority of students would still be eligible for free or reduced price meals under the plan.
“Families receiving SNAP are looking for a helping hand in a time of need,” he wrote. “They don’t need fearmongering. They need the truth, and they need us to work together to strengthen the program to safeguard benefits for those most in need.”