By Hadiya Presswood,
Special to the AFRO

D.C. Council members introduced a bill to provide “free universal school breakfast, lunch and after-school snacks to students in public, charter and participating private schools in the District of Columbia” earlier this year.

The Universal Free School Meals Amendment Act of 2023, or B25-0035, proposes that public charter schools and private schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program be obligated to offer free breakfast, lunch and after school snacks to all students– without consideration of the student’s eligibility for a federally funded free or reduced-price meal.

The bill also calls for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE)

to reimburse public schools, public charter schools and participating private schools for meals provided to students who are ineligible for federally funded free or reduced-price meals.

This bill was introduced by D.C. City Councilmembers Christina Henderson, Zachary Parker, Brianne K, Nadeau, Vincent C. Gray, Brooke Pino, Matthew Frumin, Charles Allen and Robert C. White Jr. and cosponsored by At-Large councilmember Anita Bonds.

This legislation would pick up where the last supplementary pandemic-related school meal legislation left off. Federal waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) freed up more money for schools to pay for meals and allowed for workarounds regarding strict national nutritional guidelines.

Federal waivers were in place for two years and expired in June 2022. Since then, several legislative acts have been proposed in support of expanding school meals or reducing costs while schools transition back to in-person or pre-pandemic operations.

The Support Kids Not Red Tape Act of 2022 was introduced in the Senate in March 2022 by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and has bi-partisan support. This bill seeks to amend the power of the USDA to modify requirements for school meal programs.

The act also states that the “USDA must provide technical assistance to help school food authorities and states meet nutritional standards and resume regular meal program operations for the 2023-2024 school year. While a waiver is in effect during the 2022-2023 school year, the state subject to the waiver must provide technical assistance in lieu of fiscal action for meal pattern violations due to supply chain disruptions. The bill also appropriates funds as necessary to carry out this bill’s activities.”

Without waivers in place, schools will have to collect applications from families to determine eligibility for reduced-price or free meals. A growing number of students may face hunger throughout the day, as families that don’t qualify for free meals will have to start paying at a higher cost than in previous years due to inflation.

According to a February 2022 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, families with children “experienced statistically significant increases in food insecurity during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, even as overall food insecurity stayed the same. In 2020, 85.2 percent of households with children were food secure, while 14.8 percent were food-insecure, up from 13.6 percent in 2019.”

In April 2023, Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D-KY) introduced The School Meals Expansion Act, known as H.R. 2567, which would amend the current school lunch act to lower the community eligibility provision threshold from 40 percent to 25 percent and increase the multiplier for federal reimbursement from 1.6 to 2.5.

The Community Eligibility Provision is a USDA non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas that allows schools and districts to serve meals at no cost without collecting household applications.

Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).