President Biden advocated Wednesday for the expansion of free school meals as part of a new national strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating by 2030.
The administration’s effort to combat hunger comes as rising food prices have become a political liability for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections this fall. According to the Labor Department, grocery prices increased 0.7% month over month in August and 13.5% year over year.
“My plan would make at least nine million more children eligible for free school meals—a significant first step toward providing free meals to every single student,” Mr. Biden said at a White House conference on nutrition, hunger, and health.
Republicans expressed skepticism about expanding federal nutrition programs, including free school meals, saying the White House had done little outreach to them ahead of the conference.
“It is critical to use taxpayer funds to help those in need; providing free meals to the children of doctors, lawyers, and lobbyists does not do that,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, which oversees child nutrition programs.
A program that allowed schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students during the pandemic ended at the start of this school year, when lawmakers allowed it to lapse.
While Mr. Biden wants to fully restore free universal school meals, administration officials said they would first lobby Congress to expand a program known as “community eligibility,” which allows schools and school districts in high-poverty areas to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students without requiring their parents to apply for the benefits.
Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to restore universal free school meals in the current stopgap spending bill moving through the House and Senate, and they have expressed skepticism about other attempts to expand free school meals beyond the population already eligible.
Schools or districts are currently eligible for the community eligibility program if 40% of their students receive food stamps or participate in another safety net program tied to household income. The administration estimates that lowering the threshold to 25% would result in approximately 9 million more children receiving free school meals, but no cost estimate was provided.
Children in a family of four are eligible for free school meals if their household income is $36,000 or less, or $51,000 for reduced-price meals, according to current guidelines.
Some families who benefited from the pandemic’s universal free school meals program said there was no need to keep it in place.
Mr. Donnett, who lives near Minneapolis, says his elementary school students can now buy hot lunch at school twice a month and bring their own food the rest of the time.
The administration also stated that it would lobby Congress to expand access to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to include many formerly incarcerated people. Individuals convicted of a federal or state felony involving the possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance are barred from receiving food stamps, but many states have limited or repealed that prohibition.
To make it easier for people to use their benefits, the administration announced plans to expand online shopping options for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, as well as propose updating regulations to permanently allow people to shop online using food-stamp benefits, which increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nutritionists have advocated for another, more condensed label on the front of the package that would visually flag certain health risks, such as high sugar or saturated-fat content, in addition to the detailed nutritional label on the back or side of many food items. Industry groups have argued that there is insufficient evidence to show that such labels influence consumer behavior and have questioned the FDA’s authority to mandate them.
The only previous White House conference on hunger, nutrition, and health was held in 1969, during President Richard Nixon’s administration, and resulted in the authorization of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, the expansion of the national school lunch program, and the development of food-based dietary guidelines.