What's next for the school meal program that's feeding millions of American children

·Personal finance writer
·4 min read

President Joe Biden signed the Keep Kids Fed Act into law over the weekend, extending the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school nutritional waivers to September 30.

The federal waivers granted all children, regardless of income, access to free meals through the summer and school year for the last two years via the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT).

The nutritional waivers, which affected an estimated 36 million children, were slated to expire on June 30. And while the new law extends some waivers, it will exclude the flexibilities that suspended eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price meals. According to No Kids Hungry, the P-EBT program gave an additional 7 million students access to breakfast and lunch due to expanded eligibility.

“Passing the Keep Kids Fed Act is a vital first step,” Allison Johnson, Campaigns Director for ParentsTogether Action, a parent advocacy group, said in a press statement. “But Congress must then act quickly to ensure universal free school meals don’t end in September. Families are struggling with inflation, the end of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments, and cannot be expected to weather the storm of yet another lifeline ending. Millions of hungry kids are relying on them to act."

A mother paying for food in a supermarket in San Telmo. The food at home index rose 10.8% over the last 12 months, according to the US Labor Department's April Consumer Price Index (CPI). (Credit: Jeffrey Greenberg, Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A mother paying for food in a supermarket in San Telmo. The food at home index rose 10.8% over the last 12 months, according to the US Labor Department's April Consumer Price Index (CPI). (Credit: Jeffrey Greenberg, Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Each year, federal summer meal programs help reduce food hardship by providing free meals to children, but these benefits have limitations.

According to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the Summer Food Service Program and summer meals provided by the National School Lunch Program reached only 1 child for every 7 that depended on free or reduced-price meals throughout the school year in 2020. That number is reduced even further for children who live in rural areas – 1 child in every 10 had access to a summer meal program due to transportation hurdles.

“As the summer rolls in, parents will have to make sacrifices,” Pulin Modi, director of campaigns for ParentsTogether, told Yahoo Money. “Parents will be forced to pay more for food or cut back on costs of food and make other changes.”

Anita Barksdale, right, helps her daughter Nicole Barksdale, 5, left, and her son Christopher Barksdale, 9, as they figure out the cost of ingredients for their sesame shrimp stir-fry recipe at a Kroger grocery store in Lake Orion, Michigan. (Credit: Joshua Lott,The Washington Post)
Anita Barksdale, right, helps her daughter Nicole Barksdale, 5, left, and her son Christopher Barksdale, 9, as they figure out the cost of ingredients for their sesame shrimp stir-fry recipe at a Kroger grocery store in Lake Orion, Michigan. (Credit: Joshua Lott,The Washington Post)

But the implementation of the Pandemic-EBT benefits provided over $12 billion in new nutrition assistance to address hardship caused by the pandemic. The program supplied funds on a debit card to low-income families, so they could purchase groceries to replace missed school meals when schools were shuttered due to the pandemic.

According to the Brookings Institute, the week after states rolled out the P-EBT benefits, the program prevented at least 2.7 million children from experiencing food hardship.

“The existing meal programs aren’t enough to sustain the households that need it the most,” Modi said. “The income thresholds and eligibility requirements cast out families that could benefit from these programs. Instead of making it easy, they are making it as difficult as possible.”

Elementary School Children in line at cafeteria being served healthy lunches Hagerstown, Maryland. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Summer P-EBT is highly effective in reducing food hardship among families with children. Should all states participate, the program could reach more than 36 million children. (Credit: Edwin Remsburg via Getty Images)
Elementary School Children in line at cafeteria being served healthy lunches Hagerstown, Maryland. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Summer P-EBT is highly effective in reducing food hardship among families with children. Should all states participate, the program could reach more than 36 million children. (Credit: Edwin Remsburg via Getty Images)

While states are encouraged to submit plans to the USDA to issue P-EBT during the summer 2022, some states have gone further by moving to pass their own universal free meal programs.

Beginning in the 2022-23 school year, California and Maine will become the first states to implement a statewide universal meals program for children in schools – providing both breakfast and lunch to all children, regardless of income. Additionally, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, and Minnesota have proposed universal free lunch bills. Meanwhile, Colorado lawmakers are pushing a state house bill to include universal free school lunches starting in 2024.

The moves are especially important considering rising inflation that’s left low-income families struggling. The cost of food rose 10.1% in April – the highest increase since April 1979.

Census data also showed signs that food insecurity among children is also on the rise, with officials indicating that National School Lunch programs were a key safety net in reducing the risk of childhood hunger – especially as the Child Tax Credit ended.

“Everyone agrees that inflation is currently a problem, and that families are struggling to put food on the table, so how is it that we’re going to allow this program to expire?” Modi said. “We need to find a bipartisan way to ensure that kids are able to get universal meals even if it's for one more year as we stabilize the economy.”

Correction: A previous version of this story contained outdated information. We regret the error.

Gabriella is a personal finance reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @__gabriellacruz.

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