A legislative bill introduced Thursday by House Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott (VA-03) would grant all students eligibility to receive free school nutrition services this school year via the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated our nation’s child hunger crisis, created record high unemployment and caused prolonged economic hardship – leaving many families struggling to cover basic essentials,” Scott stated in a press release. “The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would help address the child hunger crisis, make it easier for schools to operate school meal programs and provide financial relief to school meal programs that have suffered heavy losses during the pandemic. This legislation will ensure that all children will have access to nutrition during this public health emergency.”
Co-led and co-sponsored by multiple representatives across the nation including Rep. Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), the Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would make free breakfast, lunch and after-school snack programs available to all children under the age of 18. Much like they did during school closures and the summer months, school districts would be able to serve these meals without having to verify the child’s eligibility, as applications would be waived for these resources.
“School closures don’t just impact a child’s education, they impact the food security and nutrition of millions of children across the country who rely on school meals for food,” Rep. Grijalva said. “The Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would reduce the paperwork and administrative burden for school nutrition programs and allow them to serve as many students as they can while schools remain closed.
“COVID-19 has already wreaked havoc on every aspect of our children’s lives. The least we can do is ensure that they continue having access to quality meals.”
The concern among school nutrition directors, however, is that these provisions won’t be available soon enough.
“Congress is getting ready to go on their own break for the summer, so I don’t see this going into effect very soon,” said Michael Clark, nutrition director for Crane School District. “It’s a good response, but it’s not soon enough. I’ve seen some incredible miracles happen in a short amount of time when people are highly motivated, and I believe this would be a bipartisan subject – it’s an easy one for everyone to get behind. But traditionally, bills take at least a month, when it’s on the fast track, to have the opportunity to be enacted.”
Echoed by Yuma School District One’s nutrition director Lisa Thrower, as the 2020-2021 school year has already begun for some Yuma County districts, she said the timing of the proposal could have been better.
“In all honesty, it is a little late to be coming up with something in legislation; however, we’ll take it for whatever we can,” she said. “What we’re seeing in the Yuma community is a lot of families that are going without meals, more so than ever before. As we’ve heard throughout this whole pandemic, I don’t think anybody realized just how much families really relied on schools to get a lot of their resources, especially food.”
According to Thrower, the truth of the matter is that many families cannot afford to pay for school lunches, which is one of the drivers behind school nutrition directors’ push for the bill to be enacted.
“My theory is (parents) don’t have to pay for buses for transportation for kids to go to school, the kids don’t have to pay for textbooks, but for some reason they have to pay for the meals,” Thrower said. “It just seems silly that breakfast and lunch is the only thing that isn’t free at school. We shouldn’t have to worry about feeding kids; it should just be a thing that’s part of their school day.”
Additionally, from a financial standpoint, the bill would provide relief to school nutrition departments as they try to sustain their operations with fewer resources this school year.
“The last five months have been pretty drastic, but that’s especially true in the child nutrition world,” Thrower said. “Because we are federally operated and under the USDA, we have so many different guidelines that we have to follow in being self-supported. This Pandemic Child Hunger Prevention Act would at least give us a higher rate of reimbursement so we can, hopefully, make up for that big hole that we’ve had.”
Without the proposal’s intervention, Clark said school nutrition departments are “in danger of running very far into the red very quickly.”
“I spend a lot of time telling people that we try to be an asset for schools, so because of that, we don’t take funding from the schools,” Clark said. “What that means is we’re held responsible for our own losses. I can buy less food, but I still have to provide an opportunity for all of my staff to work.
“Labor is labor, and that’s about $1.2 million for me. All of those waivers and benefits and held harmless clauses for schools – those are all nice, but they don’t apply to my department. Up until this point we’ve stayed pretty good (financially), but I’m not going to be able to maintain that any longer.”