BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - School Nutrition advocates are pushing Congress to make changes to the lunch program so that all students can eat for free. Districts got federal waivers this school year to provide free meals to all students, but advocates say families need help long-term.
Tuscaloosa County Schools, like many other districts, switched to free boxed meals for families after the pandemic hit.
“From March with the shutdown until we reopened in August over 1 million meals were served,” said Donette Worthy, Director for Child Nutrition with Tuscaloosa County Schools.
The federal waiver used by districts to offer every student a free breakfast and lunch ends this school year, but members of the School Nutrition Association are lobbying Congress to at least extend it through next school year. Advocates say the extension is needed because many families may still be dealing with the impact of the pandemic.
But that’s just a start. They’re also pushing Congress to take action to get rid of the free and reduced program for good. Data from the Brookings Institute shows nearly 1 in 5 young children in the U.S. struggles with food insecurity.
“Food and education go hand in hand,” said Worthy. “And they deserve to be spoken about in the same sentence.”
Advocates say the metrics for the free and reduced program used during a normal school year often bump families out of assistance categories, even if they really need the help. Worthy described a heartbreaking conversation with a grandmother raising her grandchildren who didn’t qualify for the meal assistance because her family’s income was $50 over the income criteria.
The organization is collecting data to compare budgets from previous years versus money spent this year to offer free meals to student to determine cost changes, but say early estimates show it’s a sustainable option.
“With my school district, we have seen an increase, but it’s not astronomical,” said Worthy. “There are taxpayers concerned that if it’s a free for all, then everybody would take us up on this and Congress couldn’t handle it. I don’t think the data will reflect that concern.
Leaders have a virtual conference with lawmakers next Month where they will advocate for the changes.