Lawmakers avoid hunger ‘cliff,’ but more work is needed

We often hear about low-income inner city kids struggling to stay well nourished and focused on learning throughout the year, but it’s a problem for many children in rural areas, too. Just ask some of your local teachers.

When many schools were closed during the pandemic and supply chains were disrupted, the problems only grew worse. And now with inflation cutting into everyone’s paychecks, it’s even more costly to find safe, affordable food.

“Childhood hunger in this country has spiked dramatically as a result of the public health and economic fallout of COVID-19,” noted Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center, earlier this year. “But things would be far worse if not for child nutrition waivers, and the hard work of states, school nutrition directors, and community-based organizations, which has supported access to school and summer meals during this unprecedented time.”

Nearly 14 million children received breakfast and 19.8 million children received lunch on an average school day during the 2020-2021 school year, a decrease of 692,000 children and 8.8 million children, respectively, compared to breakfast and lunch participation rates in the 2018–2019 school year—the last full school year prior to the pandemic, according to FRAC.

Thankfully, Congress stepped in during 2020 to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to grant nationwide child nutrition waivers through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. These waivers allowed school nutrition programs, local government agencies, and nonprofits to keep feeding children even as school closed and the need to social distance remained.

But the waivers were set to expire on June 30, 2022, creating what had been dubbed a “hunger cliff.”

Recently, lawmakers stepped in again, providing additional support for hungry children and sent legislation to the White House for President Biden’s signature.

The Keep Kids Fed Act was announced by Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and Ranking Member John Boozman, R-AR, along with House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, D-VA, and Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, R-NC.

“Schools and parents can rest easy knowing that help is on the way so kids can continue getting school and summer meals,” said Sen. Stabenow. “Congress is making sure school and summer meal programs get much needed support to deal with ongoing food service issues and keep kids fed.”

The bill extends certain flexibilities for child nutrition programs and provides temporary increases in reimbursement rates for school meals and meals provided at child care centers.

As Sen. Boozman noted, passage of the legislation is “welcome news for school administrators, who continue to grapple with rising food prices and supply chain issues, as well as parents, who face similar challenges at home and have found themselves in a state of uncertainty with this looming deadline.”

Still, some anti-hunger advocates say the bill is a good start but didn’t go far enough.

“The Keep Kids Fed Act provides critical aid to school nutrition professionals confronting a continued onslaught of challenges in their effort to ensure students are nourished and ready to learn,” said Beth Wallace, president of the School Nutrition Association. “We are extremely disappointed Senate leaders were forced to strike a key provision to eliminate the reduced-price meal co-pay for eligible families, struggling with rising food and gas costs.

“We are extremely disappointed Senate leaders were forced to strike a key provision to eliminate the reduced-price meal co-pay for eligible families, struggling with rising food and gas costs,” said Wallace. “Throughout the pandemic, free school meals have ensured students are nourished and ready to learn. The loss of free school meals puts too many students at risk of going hungry.”

FRAC expressed concern that the “provisions in the legislation are only temporary, and do not go as far as we would like. They do not support access to school meals for children in the upcoming school year. Moreover, the provisions do not provide much-needed access to free school meals for millions of school-aged children who will lose access if schools are unable to offer meals to all of their students at no charge in the upcoming school year.”

Whether or not Congress is able to provide additional funding for more feeding programs remains unclear. But you can expect to hear a lot more about this topic throughout the fall.

President Joe Biden announced for the first time in over 50 years, the White House will host a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health this September. The aim is to “accelerate progress and drive significant change to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related disease, and close the disparities around them.

The Biden administration set a goal of ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity in the U.S. by 2030 so that fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.

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Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.,