Front Page Talking Points


Congress hears calls for return of free hot meals for all students, regardless of family income


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Some students' families are affected by the end of a pandemic-era federal program that provided free cafeteria meals. Families now have to pay if they don’t qualify for breakfast and lunch because of income level. The School Nutrition Association said in January that 96 percent of schools it surveyed were facing an increase in unpaid meal debt because government grants for free meals to all students ended in the 2022-23 school year. (Schools often feed every student anyway, requiring them to pay later and creating a debt parents may struggle to repay. Some children stop getting hot food or a full meal.)

The nutrition group, a nonprofit in Arlington, Va., and others are urging Congress to bring back no-cost meals for all students. "We're very worried that at the end of the year, a lot of schools will have significant amounts of unpaid meal debt that they need to pay off," an association spokeswoman says, "and that could cut into education funds. . . . We want to make sure every student has equal access to healthy school meals." Congress earlier OK'd an extra 40 cents per lunch and 15 cents per breakfast for every school meal served this school year, but those funds expire July 1. Community organizations, social media influencers and national nonprofits are trying to help fill the void with donations.

Republicans in Congress oppose permanently extending universal free cafeteria meals, arguing that only the neediest families should be eligible. A handful of states are stepping in. California and Maine use budget surpluses to start permanent universal school meal programs. Temporary extensions run through June in Vermont, Nevada, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania (breakfast only). "Free school meals are critical to child development," says Erin McAleer, head of Project Bread, an East Boston nonprofit. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz recently urged legislators to approve money for breakfasts and lunches at all public schools. Colorado will tax wealthier residents to generate $100 million for free meals — a program overwhelmingly approved by voters in November.

National group says: "A family that's going through a medical crisis or just had a rent increase and is still struggling to make ends meet, they might not qualify for meal benefits, but they're still having a hard time putting food on the table." -- Diane Pratt-Heavner, media relations director, School Nutrition Association

State lawmaker says: "We have a budget surplus and we know we can do this. No child in Minnesota should be going hungry." – Rep. Sydney Jordan, a Democrat

Professor says: "Expanding the school meals program to all kids, regardless of their families' income, leads to improvements for kids and families. Math test scores go up, exclusionary discipline — basically out-of-school suspensions — go down and the use of food bank services also falls." -- Krista Ruffini, Georgetown University economist

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for, Copyright 2024

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SL.CCS.1/2/3/4 Grades 6-12: An essay of a current news event is provided for discussion to encourage participation, but also inspire the use of evidence to support logical claims using the main ideas of the article. Students must analyze background information provided about a current event within the news, draw out the main ideas and key details, and review different opinions on the issue. Then, students should present their own claims using facts and analysis for support.