The Roanoke Times | Aly: Universal free meals should continue during the upcoming school year


“It is with sadness that we learned that the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees school lunch programs, will reinstate eligibility requirements for students for them to receive free or discounted lunches.

In the early days of the pandemic, the department implemented the Universal Free Meals (UFM) program, allowing schools to offer meals to all students for free, regardless of family income. It was made possible after Congress gave the department the ability to grant waivers.

Back then, most public school students were learning remotely, a set-up that in itself caused tremendous stress and other mental health related issues, not to mention possible learning loss. The idea of kids going hungry during a public health crisis would have added fuel to the proverbial fire. Providing meals to kids, regardless of their family’s incomes, was a smart solution to help prevent further complications, as well as eradicate — at least temporarily — long-held stigmas about free school meal recipients.

But as the nation increasingly desires to have some semblance of normalcy, the old pre-pandemic policies return as well, and the waiver that allowed universal free meals will expire on Sept. 30. However, Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit humanitarian and advocacy organization that has worked with No Kid Hungry to provide healthy school lunches in the Roanoke school district, believes the reinstated policies will limit school districts’ abilities to meet their respective communities’ and families’ needs.

We believe the waiver should still continue given other struggles families are now facing, namely inflation. With food prices spiraling well above the rate of inflation, which is at its highest point in four decades, we must ensure all students have access to free school lunches. It would be a mistake to think that kids who normally wouldn’t qualify for free or subsidized lunches are financially comfortable. Some kids just miss the cut. The current eligibility guidelines state that a household made up of a single parent with two children making $41,000 per year earns too much to qualify for reduced-price meals. Given the high cost of housing, food, and other necessities, does anyone really think that’s a comfortable salary?

But the bigger threat that looms is the effect on childrens’ development. Over a period of time, foregoing nutritious meals risks impairing their cognitive functions, physical energy and state of mind, nutritionists say.

School meals have especially improved since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was enacted, as the meals have more vegetables, whole grains, and fruit. School meals typically have more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than the meals of past generations. There have been decreases in childhood obesity. The meals often have more nutrients than packed lunches, or ones found at grocery stores and restaurants. The nutrients can hasten the children’s maturation and growth.

School meals have helped to reduce childhood hunger. Before the pandemic, 10.5 percent of households in the US were food insecure, and even higher among households with children (14.8 percent). Food insecurity can result in children with lower math and reading scores, increased risk in overall lower academic readiness, and poor physical and mental health. Estimates note that one in six children struggle with access to food, with this issue disproportionately impacting children of color. Feeding America has estimated that during 2021, one in five Black individuals may have experienced food insecurity compared to one in nine white individuals.

A nationwide UFM program would continue to address food access for our future leaders in a fairer, equitable way. We hope to see it continue.”

Read the article on The Roanoke Times.

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