President Biden signed a bill this past Saturday, June 25, that extends the school meal waiver program that has helped to provide free lunches to children both at school and over the summer ever since the early days of the pandemic in 2020. Although Congress left the program out of the federal budget this past March, a group of bipartisan lawmakers quickly worked to pass the Keep Kids Fed Act before the program’s deadline on June 30.
The waivers have been used by 90% of school districts nationwide to help feed more than 30 million children regardless of income. Not only did they provide free lunches by removing the requirement for applications, but they also cut some restrictions on how and when meals could be provided, making it easier to feed children over the summer, as well as subsidizing the cost of the food itself to help schools deal with supply chain issues.
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell had opposed the extension, resulting in its exclusion from the March budget, and the new bill is the result of a comprise that removed a significant section of the original waivers: though restrictions are still eased and subsidies are still provided, parents must once again apply to get free lunches for their children. Only those from families living below 185% of the federal poverty line will qualify for free lunches.
These school lunch waivers have been particularly important for Arkansas, as we are the second in the nation for child hunger, with 25% of children facing food insecurity according to the Arkansas Foodbank, with even higher rates in some rural areas. It is likely that many schools may raise the price of lunches due to inflation and supply-chain issues, all while families have to deal with those same issues on top of sky-high gas prices. Though the extension has prevented much of the chaos that would have followed the deadline, many who fall below the cut-off line for free lunches will now have to wrangle with applications, while those above it might find more difficulty in paying for lunches than they had ever had before.