Sanders, Omar unveil legislation to provide universal school meals to children

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Photo Credit: W. Scott McGill

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) announced the introduction of the Universal School Meals Program Act to help provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student in America—without demanding they prove they are poor enough to deserve help getting three meals a day.

“In the richest country in history of the world, when the top 1 percent are making more than they ever have before, it is simply outrageous that 1 in 5 children will go hungry this year,” said Sanders. “Today, I am proud to propose legislation to make sure that no student goes hungry at a public school and to eliminate the stigma surrounding children who receive free or reduced lunch.”

“There are nearly 1 in 10 households in Minnesota that struggle with food insecurity, along with millions more across the country,” said Omar. “We must find a way to address this crisis. When our children have empty stomachs, they cannot learn. They have more trouble concentrating. They are more likely to be absent or tardy.  Study after study finds that access to meals increases child participation. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, no child should be turned away from a meal if they cannot afford it. I am proud to join Sen. Sanders in ensuring that school meals are provided free of cost to all children all year long.”

The bill prohibits schools that participate in the federal school meal program from denying meals to students, and reimburses districts for any meal debt owed by families. Universal school meals benefit students, their parents, teachers, and the schools themselves. Studies show that students with access to free breakfast have improved attendance rates and perform better in school, and children with access to universal school meals have improved health outcomes.

Under this legislation, teachers—who rank hunger as a top three priority in children’s health—could expect fewer behavioral incidents and lower suspension rates. More and more schools are already seeing the benefits of offering universal school meals to all children: school participation rates in the universal school meals program more than doubled from 2014 to 2018.

Currently, only students from homes with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty line ($47,600 for a family of four) can enroll in free or reduced-price meals at school. Not all eligible students participate in the program, and many students whose families struggle to make ends meet are deemed ineligible. Furthermore, 75 percent of school districts report carrying school lunch debt, which in some cases amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some districts have resorted to heinous scare tactics to collect school meal debt.

That ends under the Universal School Meals Program Act. This bill will:

  • Prohibit schools participating in the school lunch program 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;
  • Create a $0.30 per lunch incentive for schools that procure 30 percent of their food from local sources;
  • Reimburse schools for all of their delinquent meal debt and stop the harassment of parents and students;
  • Provide an additional $60 per month per child on EBT cards to help families in need purchase food during the summer months;
  • Eliminate the two tiered reimbursement rate for the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and allow child care providers to receive the highest reimbursement rate regardless of income;
  • Empower schools to collect Title I funding information from existing resources and without putting the burden on individual families to report their income.

This legislation is co-sponsored by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Gwen Moore (D-WI), André Carson (D-IN), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and endorsed by Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), National Education Association (NEA), Hunger Free Vermont, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFAVT), Social Security Works, Hmong American Farmers Association, Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Progress America, Other 98%, Hunger Solutions Minnesota, Appetite For Change, Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), The Food Group, The Good Acre, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Rural Vermont, Feeding America, Democratic Socialists of America, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

To read a Universal School Meals Program Act fact sheet, click here.
To read a section-by-section, click here.
To read the legislation, click here.
To watch a video on the benefits of universal school meals, click here.



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