U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is pushing for her recently introduced Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization currently being negotiated by the Senate Agriculture Committee. The bicameral legislation would permanently implement a Universal School Meals program to provide free school meals for all students. While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently provides free school meals through COVID-19 waivers through the 2021-2022 school year, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would deliver permanent relief to millions of food-insecure families by eliminating school meal debt, encouraging the use of local foods in school meal programs, and providing free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all school children regardless of their socioeconomic background.
“Many children in New York and across the country rely on school meals to keep from going hungry,” said Senator Gillibrand. “This important legislation will deliver essential resources for school meal programs to ensure no student is ever denied a school meal, help families who are struggling to make ends meet, support schools, cut red tape, and bolster food producers across New York State. With USDA currently providing universal school meals through the 2021-2022 school year, now is the time to take bold action and make universal school meals a permanent reality. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I will work with my colleagues to include the Universal School Meals Program Act in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization so that all children have a reliable source of meals and schools have the resources to administer these critical programs.”
Our school district has strived to provide students and staff with locally sourced healthy school meals. This bill allows for us to scale and make sustainable our efforts,” said Ithaca City School District Superintendent Dr. Luvelle Brown.
“When food insecurity was magnified for families across New York during the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA’s free school lunch program provided critical relief. Senator Gillibrand’s Universal School Meals Program Act will improve the lives of children here in the 125th district of New York by making this critical relief permanent, ensuring that all children have access to healthy and free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack regardless of their socio-economic level,” said New York State Assemblymember Dr. Anna Kelles. “The bill reimburses school districts for meal debt and increases the reimbursement rate for school meals. Additionally, the bill supports local agriculture by providing incentives for sourcing food locally. Ending hunger in schools is a key step towards equity and allows all children to focus their energy where it should be, on their education.”
According to Feeding America, 22 million kids rely on the National School Lunch Program for free and reduced-price meals. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges for food insecure families and limited access to no-cost meals, especially in rural, tribal and communities of color. It is estimated that 1 in 4 children in New York State faced hunger in 2020. By offering universal school meals this past year, schools across New York State have helped combat the spike in child hunger caused by the pandemic. Through a combination of federal waivers, many schools for the first time were able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of their income.
If the emergency waivers were allowed to expire, many families in need would be excluded from participation– a family of four living on just over $34,000 would not be able to enroll in free or reduced-price school meals. Senator Gillibrand’s legislation would make the bold and permanent changes needed to support schools and deliver cost-effective solutions to ensure no child is denied a school meal. Studies show that students with access to free breakfast have improved attendance rates and perform better in school. Under the legislation, 48.9% of students in New York State would be newly eligible for free school meals.
Specifically, the Universal School Meals Program Act would:
- Put an end to school lunch shaming by prohibiting federally funded schools from denying any child a prepared hot lunch or breakfast.
- Increase reimbursement rates in line with USDA’s estimated cost of producing meals to $2.72 for breakfast and $3.81 for lunch and dinner. Current reimbursement rates are insufficient to cover the cost of producing meals.
- Provide an additional incentive for local food procurement of up to $0.30 per meal for schools that procure 25% of their food from local sources. The bill defines local as food produced within state lines or within 250 miles of the purchasing School Food Authority. Every dollar spent on local food generates over two dollars in local economic activity. If all schools met the 25% local food criteria for?school meals, it would deliver an enormous investment in rural communities by providing local farmers with an additional $3.3?billion in income per year, a 28% increase in local food sales.
- Reimburse schools for all delinquent school meal debt to prevent schools and parents from carrying burdensome debt because of clerical errors and stop the harassment of parents and students.
- Provide summer meals to all children and summer EBT to lower-income children. The bill makes all communities eligible for the Summer Food Service Program to give children access to healthy meals during the summer months, regardless of income. Additionally, the bill provides an additional $60 per month per child on EBT cards to purchase food during the summer months for families, particularly in rural areas, who struggle to reach a community meal site.
- Strengthen and expand the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) by increasing the number of allowable meal services for child care providers to three meals and a snack per day. The bill would eliminate the overly complicated two-tiered reimbursement rate for CACFP and allow child care providers to receive the highest reimbursement rate regardless of income.
Senator Gillibrand has been a leader in the fight to combat the growing hunger crisis since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, Gillibrand visited food banks across New York State and successfully pushed congressional leadership to include the 15% increase in SNAP benefits. Gillibrand also proposed the Ensuring Nutrition for America’s Students Act, and called on Congress to pass the bill in order to expand eligibility for P-EBT, make the program more responsive to changes in virtual and in-person learning, and ensure low-income children who have been previously left out of the program have access to nutritious meals throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Gillibrand successfully fought for the inclusion of an emergency increase in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Cash Value Vouchers up to $35 per month for women and children in the American Rescue Plan. She also recently introduced the Summer Meals Act alongside Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to improve the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides low-income children — who would normally receive free or reduced lunch during the school year — with nutritious meals during the summer, after school, and when school is closed for vacations or emergencies.
The bill is also endorsed by over 370 organizations, including Hunger Solutions New York, Community Food Advocates NYC, Food Bank of Central New York, Urban School Food Alliance, Foodlink, School Nutrition Association, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Hunger Free America, UnidosUS, Children’s Defense Fund, and the National Action Network.
County-by-county breakdown of students newly eligible for free school meals under the Universal School Meals Program Act can be found here. The calculations are based on data from 2018-2019 NYSED Enrollment and Student and Educator databases.
A summary of the Universal School Meals Program Act can be found here.
Full text of the legislation can be found here.