Congress is once again working against the clock to finance the government, and it appears that school lunches may be cut from the budget.
According to individuals familiar with the situation, certain Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are opposed to adding a pandemic-era free school meal policy in the federal funding agreement.
While Democrats support extending some pandemic-related federal programs in the package, a Republican leadership aide told the Post that further extensions of expiring programs would be too costly. Congress has until midnight on Friday to pass a package to keep the government funded and avoid a federal shutdown.
“This weekend, I’ve made a request to speak to Leader McConnell and Leader McCarthy,” US Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack told the Post. “Now, I realize that they’ve got a lot on their plate. But the failure of Republicans to respond to this means that kids are going to have less on their plates. And there’s no reason for this. There’s no reason for this.”
The School Nutrition Association has sent 73,000 emails to Congress seeking an extension of the universal school lunch program, as well as lobbying in person on Capitol Hill, according to Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich, who first reported on the matter on Tuesday.
A federally sponsored US Department of Agriculture initiative that began in April provides free lunches to all K-12 students, regardless of poverty, through the end of June, reaching an estimated 12 million children who are food insecure, according to the department. However, if the program is not renewed, the government estimates that school meal funding would be slashed by 40%, affecting many families and children.
According to the Post, the government financing plan is still being finalized, so a free school lunch extension is not certain. However, if Congress fails to renew the program, it will be followed by the expiration of the monthly child tax credits, a pandemic-era benefit that provided checks to families with children but ended in December, forcing 3.7 million children to return to poverty in January.
Democrats were highly critical of its pending expiration. “No kid should have to go hungry, it’s really as simple as that,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions told Insider in a statement. “It shouldn’t be controversial to make sure our schools can keep kids fed.”
Nonetheless, several Democratic lawmakers want the free school meals program to be permanent, not just extended. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar introduced legislation in May to make universal school meals permanent, claiming that 30 million children in the United States rely on free or reduced-price school lunches, and that if the pandemic waivers expire, many students from homes with incomes just 130 percent above the poverty line will lose access to free school meals.
“In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that millions of children struggle with hunger every day,” Sanders said in a statement. “Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger. What we’ve seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards.”