Federal school meal bill stops short of universal free lunch
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici helped negotiate the Keep Kids Fed Act's passage through the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, June 23.
The legislation, which passed the senate that night and now awaits President Biden's signature, extends some school meal policies established during the pandemic and provides schools with extra funding to combat rising costs.
The act does not, however, extend a universal free school lunch program in place this past school year. Most students will have to purchase lunch next school year for the first time since March 2020.
A spokesperson for the Democratic congresswoman from northwest Oregon, Natalie Crofts, said Bonamici pushed to extend the free lunch program before compromising.
"She did push for continuation of universal free school lunches, including with her Keeping School Meals Flexible Act. I can't get into all of the specifics of negotiations … but where it landed was a bipartisan compromise," Crofts said in an email.
Per U.S. Department of Agriculture funding and guidelines, students qualify for free, reduced or full-price lunches. In Oregon, the state covers the difference for reduced-price lunches, so those students also eat free.
Last school year, through the USDA's National School Lunch Program, the federal government reimbursed school districts for all students as if they qualified for free lunch.
"Every child — regardless of the color of their skin, the town they live in, or where their parents work — deserves nutritious meals all year long," Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said in an email. "Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, over half a million people in Oregon — including one in five children — struggled with food insecurity. I will continue fighting for Oregonians and supporting legislation that brings us closer to ending hunger in Oregon and beyond."
The Keep Kids Fed Act would "increase reimbursement rates for the 2022-2023 school year by an additional 15 cents per breakfast and 40 cents per lunch."
In the Forest Grove School District, one of the Portland area's least affluent K-12 districts — with a relatively high percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch — nutrition services director Laycee Pickerell said the support is welcome, but it stops short of keeping lunch costs from being passed down to families.
"The increase in reimbursement rate means districts are going to be able to get more cents for every meal, which at the end of the day really benefits school districts and their budget, but it's not going to be the difference between giving out all meals for free. The benefit isn't necessarily passed down to families with these waivers," Pickerill said. "The last couple years have been a great case study to prove that it could be done. We can provide free school lunches for everyone. Truly, this is very helpful, these reimbursements do make a difference, but it is not the 'all meals free next year' that we were hoping for."
The act would also continue to grant school districts some flexibility in their meal programs, such as allowing family members to pick up multiple meals even when the student isn't present.
Pickerill added that lunch prices in Forest Grove School District were already set to increase by 15 cents.
"That 15 cents is being passed onto the consumer, and inflation and cost of product is significantly higher than that 15 cents or even 40 cents per meal, so that really is going to be a wash," Pickerill said. "It is not game-changing."
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