The final weeks are here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers allowing schools to provide free meals to all kids will expire at the end of June. To this point, Congress has failed to extend the necessary funding. Federal policymakers should enact legislation that enables the USDA to continue this policy, securing meals for millions of children. 

It should be an easy call. Universal free school meals were utilized as a part of the COVID-19 emergency response but should be common sense at all times. 

Since the USDA waivers went into effect in 2020, 10 million additional children have been able to eat free school meals regularly. Millions more have received after-school dinners, and families have been given additional flexibility to pick up meals for their children.

Failure to continue the necessary USDA waiver authority will immediately threaten kids’ food security since pandemic-era expansions to the school year and summer program meal funding are at stake. Children will face the effects of the budget cut on July 1st, way before the start of the next school year, and they can ill-afford the loss of these dependable meals. This year, following the expiration of the enhanced Child Tax Credit, child poverty levels have spiked. Meanwhile, inflation has made it harder for families to cover food costs. The USDA has already increased school food reimbursement sizes in response to inflation and should be permitted to maintain universal free meals.  

Senators Collins (R-ME) and Murkowski (R-AK) have joined the entire Democratic caucus, with Senators Manchin (D-WV) and Sinema (D-AZ) notably on board, to call for continued spending on the waivers. For $11 billion, members of Congress can guarantee school meals for all kids next year. 

Yet, despite the bipartisan coalition, relevant legislation does not appear to be progressing through Congress since its introduction in late March. Opponents of an extension argue that the waivers were only meant as a crisis policy. However, this is a flawed rationale. Good policy should be continued, especially when it benefits our children, and the cost of doing so is a drop in the bucket.

If members of Congress oppose the continuation of universal free school meals, they ought to be on the record as voting against a bill. Elected officials should face actual political pressure for denying food to kids. Passively letting the waivers expire will allow many policymakers to avoid accountability while harming the nation’s youth. 

Urgent action is needed now. Congress must extend the federal waiver authority before it expires on June 30th. The well-being of millions of children depends on continuing this USDA policy.

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