Congress Is Letting a School Lunch Program for 10 Million Poor Kids Expire

A USDA program offering federal waivers to guarantee year-round, free school lunches is set to expire, and Congress is doing nothing.

Congress Is Letting a School Lunch Program for 10 Million Poor Kids Expire
Photo:Getty (Getty Images)

For two years, a program by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has offered federal waivers to guarantee free lunch year-round to American school children. The program, which has disproportionately supported kids in low-income communities of color, has allowed an estimated 10 million students to be able to eat lunch even when school is out during the summer, and was originally spawned thanks to concerns about how kids would get food during the covid pandemic.

But the program is now set to come to an end within weeks when it expires on June 30, as Congress has failed to extend it.

To be clear, like mass shootings in elementary schools and the state-sanctioned bullying of trans youth who want to participate in sports, inaccessible baby formula, and zero public child care options, letting kids go hungry in the wealthiest country in the world is a policy choice, and a truly abhorrent one at that. The cost of everything—including food—is on the rise, the pandemic is raging on, and as summer begins and school closes, unsaid numbers of kids are about to go hungry in America.

According to a survey from prior to the pandemic, and prior to the USDA program, 75% of school districts in America have “unpaid student meal debt”—a term that simply should not exist. Feeding America has previously found one in five food-insecure school children lives in a home ineligible for free or reduced lunch. The state of California alone has the most children with school meal debt (again, a term that should not fucking exist) at 327,686 children.

In the absence of the waivers, students from low-income households can still technically access free lunches. But they’ll have to submit an application including their financial information, which the organization No Kid Hungry has described as “complicated,” and a source of embarrassment for kids, which can dissuade families from applying at all.

The consequences of the end of the school lunch program will be devastating and immediate: No Kid Hungry director Jillien Meier has told The Guardian we’re “going to see in real time the summer hunger crisis grow, and that’s going to give us a preview of what’s going to happen next school year.” One single mother of two also told the outlet that prior to the program, she’s had to “take the blow, not eating myself just to make sure my kids had enough to eat.” And research has long shown the harsh health, behavioral and educational consequences of kids going to school hungry.

If you’re wondering how, exactly, we reached this point, in which the government is choosing to let millions of kids go hungry while billionaires continue to pay virtually $0 in taxes, the Biden administration opted to exclude an extension of the program in its latest $1.5 trillion spending bill. This ghoulish funding decision was reportedly at the behest of the very pro-life Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and just earlier this year, a Republican aide told Politico the program simply wasn’t necessary anymore in our supposedly post-pandemic world.

In a country that’s about to recognize embryos and small clumps of cells as human beings with more rights than pregnant people, born, living babies are being deprived of formula. School children are risking their lives every day just by going to school. And now, because we’re two years into the pandemic, everyone has given up, and public officials no longer care to hide their hatred of children, millions of school kids will soon go hungry.

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