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Pingree Calls for Free School Meals

Following her school meal advocacy in Congress during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pingree joins legislation to permanently expand universal school meals

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) joined legislation to expand on the success of the universal free school meals approach recently extended by the USDA to bring long-term relief to millions of food-insecure families. The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would 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.

“One in six Maine children doesn’t have enough to eat, and we know that when a child comes to school hungry, they can’t focus on learning—they’re focused on hunger pangs. Hunger is a solvable issue, and we’ve seen bipartisan support for reforming the school meal system during the pandemic,” said Pingree. “We must provide a permanent solution to provide free meals to every student so no family has to deal with the headache of burdensome paperwork to feed their kids, no student has to deal with the stigma of income-based free lunch, and no school district has to waste money on administration. Healthy, nutritious foods are as essential to education as pencils and notebooks. That’s why I’ve signed on to the Universal School Meals Program Act, which would ensure all kids have meals at school—no strings attached. When all students can access breakfast and lunch at school, all students benefit.”

The Universal School Meals Program Act provides for the long-term with the most cost-effective and inclusive model for ensuring all students have access to nutritious meals without overwhelming barriers. The bill provides school breakfast and lunch at no charge to all children, increases school breakfast and lunch reimbursement rates, provides free afterschool and summer meals and snacks to all children and expands summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) to all low-income children.

Prior to the pandemic, school participation rates in the existing universal school meals option for high-need schools more than doubled from 2014 to 2018. This legislation builds off that success and offers major benefits to students, families, public schools, and communities. Studies show that students with access to free breakfast have improved attendance rates and perform better in school. Free and accessible school meals have also shown to reduce financial stress for students and families, improve health outcomes in students, reduce stigma associated with the programs, and lead to fewer behavioral incidents and lower suspension rates. 

H.R. 3115 provides up to a $0.30 per meal incentive for schools that procure 25 percent of their food from local sources. The inclusion of local foods in school meal programs protects and promotes small family farms, enriches local economies, and provides nutritious ingredients for kids. Pingree is the author of the Kids Eat Local Act, a bipartisan, bicameral bill to support local and regional food systems and encourage healthy meal choices among school-aged children. 

Congresswomen Pingree and Omar (D-Minn.) led the charge in 2020 to secure and renew waivers for the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option and to waive the Area Eligibility Requirement during the 2020-2021 school year. 

Almost 30 million children in the United States rely on free or reduced-price lunch. If pandemic waivers are allowed to expire, many students from homes with incomes just above 130 percent of the poverty line ($34,450 for a family of four) will not receive free meals at school. USDA estimates that 12 million children in the United States lived in food insecure homes at the height of the pandemic. By offering universal school meals this past year, schools across the nation have played an important role in combatting the spike in child hunger brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Through a combination of federal waivers, many schools for the first time were able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students regardless of their income. Following this success, USDA recently announced it will extend these waivers for the 2021-2022 school year and continue to allow schools to provide meals to all students at no charge.

This month, the Maine State Senate and House passed similar legislation to offer free breakfast and lunch to all Maine students regardless of income. 




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