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Congress is on recess while students struggle with food security

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While Congress recessed following its inability to reach a consensus on a COVID-19 relief package, students from families devastated by the pandemic are returning to school. Reopening schools has become the topic of fierce debate, but most of the conversation centers around classroom instruction, rather than nutrition — a key component of students’ ability to learn. 

Politicians, teachers unions and anyone who knows school-aged children are debating the merits of social distancing, personal protective equipment and online instruction; school nutrition programs devastated by the pandemic are confronted with a basic question: how will they feed hungry students this year?  

The importance of school meals has never been more evident. Even before the pandemic, 30 million school children relied on school meals. For many students, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive that day. In May, more than 20 percent of parents living with children under 19 reported that their households experienced food insecurity during the prior 30 days. This crisis is even more pressing for Black and Hispanic families with children, who reported food insecurity rates twice that of white households with children. Nearly four in 10 Black and Hispanic households with children reported not having enough to eat.

From the beginning of the pandemic, school nutrition staff, committed to ensuring that no student went hungry, set up meal distribution sites in parking lots and delivered individually wrapped meals to homes and bus stops. Staff served impossibly long lines of families waiting to pick up meals for their children. All of this was done without adequate personal protective equipment and without a guarantee that the costs would be covered. School nutrition programs are now facing millions of dollars in debt.

One way Congress could make a deep impact on child hunger and help financially-strapped school meal programs is by providing free school meals for all students regardless of family income. The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would ensure a nutritious breakfast and lunch this coming school year for all children. The bill was introduced last month by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who chairs the House congressional committee overseeing the school meals program, and it is widely supported by advocates and school nutrition experts.

School meals provide good nutrition for children. A recent study found that the school meal nutrition standards established in 2012 decreased the risk of childhood obesity among children in poverty by half over five years. Now more than ever, school meals must continue to meet strong nutrition standards so that children receive meals with age-appropriate calorie and sodium limits, more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with less saturated fat. Healthier meals set children up for healthier eating habits and are especially important as we consider ways to reduce their risk of diet-related diseases.

Without this legislative fix, many children will fall through the cracks. To qualify for free school meals this year, a family of four would need to make $34,000 or less. Many families will be on the cusp of eligibility. For instance, families with dual incomes may now be struggling to make ends meet on a single income, yet still not quite qualify for free school meals.

Providing free meals for all kids also reduces stigma. If all kids receive food free of charge, no one can tell whose family may be struggling to pay bills.

Moreover, establishing universal meals cuts down on red tape. It is already clear that the economic downturn will result in a flood of applications to the meal programs. Dealing with all the paperwork around eligibility is a massive administrative undertaking at a time when they should be planning how to implement new safety plans and ways to deliver meals.

Providing meals for all kids also increases the amount of funding schools would get from the federal government, helping them recoup and reduce costs. It could also guarantee business for struggling small farmers, who have thus far been left behind by COVID-19 relief funds.

An investment in healthy school meals for all is an investment in our children. It is unconscionable that while Congress recesses, millions of children and working families are suffering. As soon as they return in September, Congress must pass the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act as part of the next COVID relief package.

Meghan Maroney, MPH, is policy associate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Find her on Twitter at @meghan_maroney.

Tags Bobby Scott Coronavirus coronavirus school closures Elizabeth Warren Food desert food insecure Food insecurity Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act school children school closures school meals Students

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