Food funding bill to renew some U.S. school meal aid

By Christopher Walljasper

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Aid that helped schools feed millions of U.S. children over the last two years will be extended, pending congressional approval, after senators reached a deal following fears of its expiration at the end of the month.

Pandemic assistance helped quell hunger rates for U.S. families in recent years, but hunger again climbed following the expiration of child tax credit payments in January, while soaring food prices stretch family budgets.

The Keep Kids Fed Act, sponsored by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Arkansas Republican John Boozman, would extend some of the school nutrition waivers introduced in 2020. Those allowances expanded free meals to all students, loosened nutritional guidelines, and expanded summer meal offerings.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a Wednesday statement the deal “would ease uncertainty and bring a measure of relief to our schools, summer sites and child care feeding programs.”

The bill calls for an increase from prepandemic funding levels, but scales back recent funding and eligibility after multiple failed attempts at extending the program.

Many schools already scrapped summer meal programs this year, anticipating the waivers’ expiration. Others say they will expand offerings if the bill passes.

“We’ve had a lot of parents calling, asking if we’re serving (summer) meals,” said Michael Gasper, nutrition services supervisor for the School District of Holmen, in west central Wisconsin. “We were feeding 200-300 kids a day, in a town of 10,000 people. Clearly there was a need.”

Since 2020, summer grab-and-go meals were available at expanded locations, doubling the meals served in 2019, according to No Kid Hungry, a child nutrition advocacy group.

During the school year, federal subsidies were bumped to $4.56 for every meal served, regardless of income.

The new proposal returns to a tiered-approach, increasing the reimbursement rate to $4.06 for students who qualify for free and 75 cents for paid meals. The bill also increased the income eligibility for free meals for families just above the previous cutoff.

(Reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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