Federal bill would establish committee to address school meal debt

Also in this week’s K-12 legislative update: Biden’s proposed FY 2025 budget includes funding for expanding free school meal access and a California bill would ban certain additives in school menu items.
Lunch trays with food
A new federal bill would establish a committee dedicated to addressing meal debt at school. Photo: Shutterstock

As the 2024 legislative session continues, meal debt and expanding access to free meals at school continues to be a focus for lawmakers. Also at the state level, California is considering a ban on certain additives linked to health problems in kids.

Here is the latest in school nutrition legislation.  

Federal bill looks to eliminate meal debt

U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar is looking to put an end to school meal debt.

Her latest bill, The National Advisory Council on Unpaid School Meal Debt Act, would establish a commission of 14 members who would formulate policy recommendations to address school meal debt, prevent the stigmatization of students and ensure the sustainability of school meal programs.

The committee members would be appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and would include state food service directors, experts, parents and cafeteria employees.

Meal debt has been an obstacle for many nutrition programs since the June 2022 expiration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) summer meal waivers, which allowed schools across the country to feed all kids for free.

In a recent survey of school nutrition directors conducted by the School Nutrition Association (SNA), 92.8% of respondents who said that they charge for meals listed meal debt as a challenge for their program.

“School meal debt shouldn’t exist,” Rep. Omar said in a statement. “As a former nutrition educator and someone who has experienced hunger myself, I believe that every student should have access to nutritious meals, regardless of their financial circumstances. The National Advisory Council on Unpaid School Meal Act will help provide meaningful solutions to support students and strengthen school meal programs.”

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce

President Biden’s latest budget proposal earmarks funds to expand free school meal access

President Biden has included funding to expand access to free meals at school in his proposed FY 2025 budget.

If passed, the budget delegates $15 billion in funding over the next 10 years to expand the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a program that allows schools with a high number of low-income students to feed all students for free. The White House estimates this will allow an additional nine million children to have access to free meals at school.

Expanding access to free meals at school has been a priority for the Biden Administration, who has  set a goal of providing free school meals to 9 million more students by 2032 as part of its National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health.

California bill seeks to ban certain additives in school meals

A new bill introduced in California would ban certain food additives in school meals that have been linked to ADHD and other behavioral problems in children.

Under AB 2361, titanium dioxide and six food dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2 and Green 3) would no longer be able to be served in school meals.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, cites a 2021 report by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), which found that consuming synthetic dyes can cause neurobehavior problems in some children, as the reason for banning the additives.

“California has a responsibility to protect our students from chemicals that harm children and that can interfere with their ability to learn,” Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel said in a statement.“As a lawmaker, a parent, and someone who struggled with ADHD, I find it unacceptable that we allow schools to serve foods with additives that are linked to cancer, hyperactivity, and neurobehavioral harms. This bill will empower schools to better protect the health and wellbeing of our kids and encourage manufacturers to stop using these dangerous additives.”

If passed, the bill would go into effect at the start of 2025. It has been referred to the Assembly Education Committee.



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