Federal CARE for Kids Act would expand free school meal access

Also in this week’s K-12 Legislative update: Michigan’s universal free meals program to continue this fall, Delaware bill that covers reduced-price school meals heads to the governor’s desk and Pennsylvania lawmakers advance two school nutrition bills.
Students eating lunch at school
The CARE for Kids Act would allow more students to receive free meals at school. | Photo: Shutterstock

Lawmakers at both the federal and state level continue to push for legislation that would expand free school meal access.

A federal bill introduced by U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes would expand free school meal access to children living with grandparents and other relatives, while lawmakers in Michigan and Delaware have taken further steps to increase free school meal access.

Here’s the latest in school nutrition legislation.

Federal bill seeks to further expand free school meal access

U.S. Representative Jahana Hayes has introduced a bill that would expand free and reduced-price school meal access to children who are living with grandparents and other relatives.

The CARE for Kids Act would enable direct certification for free or reduced-price meals at school for children who are living with grandparents or other relatives, children living in “grand family” housing or who are receiving housing assistance under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996, and more.  

“Ensuring students in need can access school-based food assistance programs, no matter who their guardian is or where they live, is vital to ending child hunger,” said Congresswoman Hayes in a statement. “As someone who was raised by their grandmother, I understand how challenging it can be for family members to take on the burden of caring for a child. By expanding program eligibility and closing assistance gaps, the CARE for Kids Act will help feed children in need and reduce costs for their caregivers.”

The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Workforce. A version of the bill was first introduced in 2019 and again in 2021.

Free school meals in Michigan will continue next fall

Michigan public school students will once again receive free meals at school this fall. The state government recently passed H.B. 5507 which earmarks $200 million to continue to provide the free meals.

Michigan first offered free school meals to all students this school year after including funding for the meals in its state budget. The state is one of a handful that has decided to resume offering free meals at school to all students after the expiration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers which allowed schools nationwide to offer meals to all students at no cost.

Along with Michigan, states that have established a universal free meals program include, California, Maine,Minnesota and others. School nutrition operators in these states have seen increased participation in the months following the implementation of their universal free meals programs.

See which states currently offer universal free meals via the map below:

Delaware reduced-price meals bill has almost reached the finish line

A bill that would cover reduced-price meals at school is headed to Delaware Governor John Carney.

Originally, the bill would have provided free meals at school to all students, regardless of their family’s financial background. The original legislation was deemed too costly, however, and was substituted with the current bill last month.

Once signed into law, the state will join Connecticutand others in providing free meals to student who qualify for reduced-price meals.

Pennsylvania lawmakers advance two school nutrition bills

Meal debt could be eliminated in Pennsylvania thanks to a bill that has just advanced to the Senate.

Introduced by Representative Emily Kinkead, HB 5507 would wipe out the state’s approximately $80 million in student meal debt. In addition, it would ban lunch-shaming practices at schools, including serving alternative meals to students who are behind on meal payments.

“Food insecurity is worse in this Commonwealth now that it was during the pandemic and one in six children are food insecure,” said Kinkead in a statement. “When students are hungry at school, it negatively impacts their outcomes and the overall learning environment. Eliminating school lunch debt would allow every child to access consistent meals. Prohibiting debt shaming acknowledges that it's hard enough to be a kid without being singled out in front of your peers.”

If signed into law, the state would join Massachusetts, North Dakota and others in passing a law banning the practice.

Another school nutrition bill in the House has also advanced to the Senate. Introduced by Representative Danilo Burgos, The Keystone Fresh Act would establish the Keystone Fresh program which would provide grant funding to school nutrition programs, local suppliers and more, to increase the amount of local food that ends up on students’ lunch trays.  

Schools across Pennsylvania serve more than 157 million lunches per year, providing critical nutrients to children across the state and making them one of the largest potential markets for agricultural producers in Pennsylvania,” Burgos said in a statement. “Despite having a child nutrition budget of more than $729 million per year, schools self-report that they spend less than 2% of those funds on Pennsylvania-grown foods. Local food purchasing incentive legislationlike the Keystone Fresh Act, would address this problem by establishing a grant program incentivizing schools to purchase, promote and serve local foods in their meal programs.”



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