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Student meals part 2: Congressional action sought to revive free meal program

Supporters of universal free meals for all schoolchildren in America are looking to the U.S. Congress for continued funding, either in a spending measure or the 2023 Farm Bill.

Bu so far, no measure to extend the free meal program exists in Washington, D.C., and South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives said he does not support universal free meals at this time.

Sioux Falls School District Superintendent Jane Stavem said she has contacted South Dakota’s congressional delegates to urge them to support an extension of the free meal program, which for the past two years provided free breakfast and lunch to all students in South Dakota and across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program expired in the summer, forcing parents and schools to scramble to keep hungry students fed and performing well in school.

Stavem and other school officials in South Dakota say student hunger is on the rise so far in the 2022-23 school year due to higher inflation and the end of the free meal program. Parents are having a harder time paying for meals for their children, and some who qualify for free or reduced price meals forgot to reapply for the program when the free meal effort ended.

“When we talk about solutions, we’ve worked with federal representatives to ask, ‘Is this one thing from the pandemic that is worth keeping full time?’” Stavem said. “We just continue to impress upon them the need that every child should have access to a meal, but how they get that done is up to them.”

The free meal program provided 4 billion free meals to students during the past two school years. The pre-pandemic school nutrition program provided about 3 billion free or reduced-price lunches and cost the federal government about $14.2 billion annually. Providing free meals to all students would raise the cost of the program by about $10 billion a year.

South Dakota News Watch wrote to all three members of Congress from South Dakota, asking the three Republicans about potential extension of federal school meal funding, and received written responses from U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, and U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota. U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds was traveling and unable to respond, a spokesman said.

According to the email responses, both South Dakota lawmakers said they are considering ways to get more students fed at schools in America and the U.S., though Johnson indicated he approves of the recent change back to the program in which families that can afford to buy school meals should be asked to do so.

Johnson said that he supports the current National School Lunch Program that uses income guidelines to determine who qualifies for free or reduced meals.

“Our society is rightfully committed to feeding poor children. That’s why for decades, all poor students have had access to free school lunch,” Johnson wrote. “That program only requires that a one page application form is completed. One of the strongest predictors of student success is family engagement, so it’s important that we work with families on that and other tasks.”

But Johnson said he supported the Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, which returned the school meal program back to application-based, income-guided enrollment.

Johnson wrote that parents who can afford to buy school lunches should continue to do so.

“USDA spends approximately $19 billion annually on the school lunch program. According to USDA, reinstating universal school meals would cost an additional $10 billion,” Johnson wrote, adding that he “believes families who can afford to pay for their children’s lunch should do so to ensure the longevity of the program and keep taxpayer costs down.”

Johnson added: “This program exists for a reason, to serve children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from … guardrails aren’t a bad thing, and I believe bringing back the application process for free lunch will ensure children that need the help the most, get it.

In an email, Thune wrote: “This relief was critical for families during the height of the pandemic, which is why I urged then-U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to use his authority to extend child nutrition program administrative flexibilities for the entire 2020-2021 school year. Through multiple extensions, many of these flexibilities will exist through the current 2022-2023 school year. As with all pandemic-related policies, I think it’s important for Congress to review their ongoing need. We are no longer facing the same challenges that we were in 2020, and, as a result, our policies should reflect that. As we consider child nutrition and farm bill reauthorizations, I expect this to be part of our conversation, and I look forward to evaluating it, among other policies.”

On Sept. 15, 2022, nearly 50 members of Congress, mostly Democrats, wrote to the majority and minority leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, asking them to include funding in the next federal spending package to restart the free student meals program for all
American schoolchildren.

“There is every reason to support this critical measure, so that students can learn with a clear mind, healthy body, and better chance at a successful school day,” the legislators wrote.

No member of Congress from South Dakota signed the Sept. 15 letter.