According to reports, Mitch McConnell is opposed to extending the free school lunch program.
This comes as Congress considers what to include in the next government funding bill. The pandemic-era free school lunch program, which expires in June, serves 30 million children. Congress is once again racing against the clock to fund the government, and it appears that school meals may be cut from the budget.
According to sources familiar with the situation, some Republican lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are opposing the inclusion of a pandemic-era free school lunch provision in the government funding package. While Democrats support extending some pandemic-related federal programs in the package, a Republican leadership aide told the Post that further extensions of expiring programs would be too costly. Congress has until midnight on Friday to pass a package to keep the government funded and avoid a federal shutdown.
“This weekend, I requested to speak with Leader McConnell and Leader McCarthy,” US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post. “Now I realize they have a lot on their plates. However, Republicans’ failure to respond to this means that children will have less on their plates. And there’s no reason for this to be the case. There isn’t any reason for this.”
Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich broke the story on Tuesday, noting that the School Nutrition Association has sent 73,000 emails to Congress urging the extension of the universal school lunch program, in addition to lobbying in-person on Capitol Hill.
A federally funded US Department of Agriculture program launched in April provides free meals to all K-12 students, regardless of income, until the end of June, reaching an estimated 12 million children who are food insecure, according to the department. However, if the program is not extended, the department estimates that funding for school lunches will be cut by 40%, reducing vital resources for many families and children.
Sources told the Post that the government funding package is not yet final, so the lack of a free school meal extension is not certain. However, if Congress fails to extend the program, it will be followed by the expiration of the monthly child tax credits, a pandemic-era benefit that provided checks to families with children but expired in December, causing 3.7 million children to fall back into poverty in January.
Nonetheless, some Democratic lawmakers want more than just an extension of the free school meals program; they want it to be permanent. In May, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced legislation to make universal school meals permanent, claiming that 30 million children in the country rely on free or reduced-price school lunches, and that if the pandemic waivers expire, many students from families earning just 130 percent of the poverty line will be unable to receive free school meals.
“It is an outrage that millions of children face hunger every day in the richest country in the world,” Sanders said in a statement. “Every child is entitled to a high-quality education that is free of hunger. During this pandemic, we’ve seen that a universal approach to school meals works. We can’t go back in time.”