Wednesday, January 13, 2021

School nutrition group calls on Congress to make school meals permanently free for all public-school students

"Congress should permanently expand the school food program so that all public school students can eat breakfast and lunch for free, said the School Nutrition Association on Tuesday," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "The association said many school food directors expect to run a deficit this school year because of school closures and the higher cost of preparing and serving meals during the pandemic."

School meal programs support learning and foster healthy eating habits, so the change would boost academic achievement, health and wellness for students, said SNA President Reggie Ross in the recent position paper. The move would also eliminate the "costly, time-consuming" paperwork burden for parents and school districts. Along those lines, the paper proposed preserving flexibility on whole grain, sodium, and milk regulations.

The proposal also called for the government to provide emergency relief funds directly to school food authorities, since 62 percent of school nutrition directors said in a recent survey that they expect to lose money in the 2020-21 school year, and another 28% said they aren't sure what to expect. The December stimulus package included some funding for them, but it wasn't enough, according to the position paper.

The paper noted that school meal programs rely heavily on foods provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and calls for USDA to use data from fiscal year 2019 in deciding how much food to send to schools, because participation was way down last year. 

"Around 30 million students participated daily in the school lunch program in recent years, three-fourths of them eating free or reduced-price meals," Abbott reports. "USDA has not posted participation rates for school food programs during the pandemic. It adjusted rules so that schools could serve meals in the classroom, in cafeterias, or curbside for pickup and allowed schools to serve meals for free to all students."

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