'We Cannot Go Backwards': Sanders, Omar Lead Push for Free School Meals Bill

In a bid to better the Biden administration’s plan to expand school lunch programs for U.S. children, three Democratic lawmakers and Sen. Bernie Sanders on Friday introduced a bill that would make all school meals free for every student, regardless of their household income. 

“Every student should have the opportunity to learn, grow, and focus in school, without worrying about where their next meal will come from.”
—Rep. Gwen Moore

Sens. Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) along with Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 (pdf), a reprise of a similar 2019 bill from Sanders and Omar.

If passed, the new version would eliminate reduced-price meals and “permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all school children regardless of income, eliminate school meal debt, and strengthen local economies by incentivizing local food procurement,” according to a statement issued by Omar’s office. 

Unlike the 2019 version, which had no Senate co-sponsors, the new iteration of the bill is backed by nine other Democrats, including  Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

In the House, it is co-sponsored by 34 Democratic lawmakers, including Reps. Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Raúl Grijalva (Az.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.). 

The bill is also endorsed by more than 370 organizations including the School Nutrition Association, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, Service Employees International Union, Food Research and Action Center, Hunger Free America, UnidosUS, Children’s Defense Fund, and National Action Network.

No Republican lawmakers support the measure, which follows an announcement last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that schools nationwide can keep offering students free lunches until the end of June 2022 as part of what it called the Biden administration’s “commitment to provide safe, healthy meals free of charge to children as the pandemic continues to threaten the food and nutrition security of our most vulnerable.”

The USDA also announced last month that the Biden administration will launch a national summer food program to feed more than 30 million children from low-income households. 

In a statement introducing the bill, Omar said that “no child in the richest country in the world should face hunger.”

“One in six children in my state of Minnesota don’t know where their next meal will come from,” Omar continued. “Families across Minnesota and nationwide are still struggling from the fallout of the pandemic, and children are often bearing the brunt of this crisis.”

“I am proud to partner with my colleagues to implement a universal school meals program to ensure all of our children have the nutrition they need to succeed,” she added. 

“One in six children in my state of Minnesota don’t know where their next meal will come from.”
—Rep. Ilhan Omar

Moore said in the same statement that “every student should have the opportunity to learn, grow, and focus in school, without worrying about where their next meal will come from.”

Sanders concurred, adding that “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,” he said. “We cannot go backwards.”

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