By Sarah Melotte

The Daily Yonder

Backed by a group of bipartisan lawmakers, the Keep Kids Fed Act alleviates child food insecurity by keeping some of the expansions introduced in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It could offer a summer lifeline for those in rural areas who rely on school-served meals during the vacation season.

The act doesn’t keep the provision of universal free meals to students, but it does expand those eligible for free lunches and increases the reimbursement rate for schools, among other things.

Child nutrition waivers were originally established to relieve food insecurity at the beginning of the pandemic when children could not receive meals at school because of lockdowns. The waivers increased federal reimbursements for lunch programs and allowed schools to omit eligibility requirements for free and reduced-price meals. A USDA survey found that 90 percent of schools took advantage of the increased funding and waivers to provide free meals to students regardless of income. 

The waivers also allowed schools to establish grab-and-go lunches during the summer in more neighborhoods. Before COVID-19, these meal sites were only available in low income neighborhoods, which excluded low-income students in mixed-income neighborhoods from receiving meal programs during the summer. Now food insecure households can access meal sites more easily. 

Rural households experience more food insecurity

While 13 percent, of urban households are estimated to be food insecure, 16 percent of rural households are suspected to be food insecure. Rural students may face other challenges such as transportation to and from meal distribution sites during the summer, especially with increasing fuel prices. Some families cannot afford to drive to a daily food pick up site to get a free lunch, a challenge exacerbated if they also live in a rural food desert, or areas without a grocery store for 10 miles. The Keep Kids Fed Act allows schools to continue to deliver meals and provide grab-and-go options. 

Keep kids fed act may relieve some rural food insecurity 

Senators Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, and John Boozman, R-Arkansas, and Representatives Virginia Foxx, R-North Carolina, and Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, pushed to keep pandemic benefits in place through the Keep Kids Fed Act. Although some of the initial proposals were rejected in the House, the bill will still allow families to get multiple grab-and-go meals at a time at their summer meal sites, instead of having to travel daily to a site for a single meal. It also allows students once eligible for reduced-price meals to receive free lunches.  

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is hopeful that the bill will “bring a measure of relief to our schools.”

In time for summer vacation

During the summer, the Food and Nutrition Service’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), alleviates child food insecurity by providing meals to low-income areas while school is out of session. Expansions in response to the pandemic reimbursed schools for their summer meal programs, but they were set to expire on June 30th. 

Almost 90% of all School Food Authorities (SFA) reported using the School Year 2021-2022 Seamless Summer Option (SSO) Waiver. About 91% of public SFAs used the SSO waiver compared to 77% of private SFAs. Small SFAs were less likely to use the SSO waiver (84%) than medium (95%), large (97%), and very large (99%) SFAs. SFAs located in rural areas were more likely to use the SSO waiver than those located in non-rural areas (91% compared to 85%). (Source: Results of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service-Administered School Food Authority Survey on Supply Chain Disruptions)

Before the pandemic, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP) allowed students to receive free lunch if they were at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, while students between 130-185 percent of the poverty line received a reduced-price lunch. But an NBC source says that enrolling students in the lunch program is “burdensome” for both the parents required to provide proof of income and the school administrators, a burden exacerbated by current staffing shortages

No Kid Hungry estimates that children could miss out on 95 million meals this summer if the lunch program is not extended. 

The percentage of students who participate in the Free or Reduced-Price Lunch program has been steadily on the rise since the Child Nutrition Act handed lunch program responsibilities to the USDA in 1966.

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The Daily Yonder has been published on the web since 2007 by the Center for Rural Strategies, a non-profit media organization based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The site was developed...