Millions of Children Could Go Hungry if Lawmakers Don't Extend Free Lunch Program

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  • Millions more children have received free school meals during the pandemic.
  • If lawmakers don't extend that provision, many kids could go hungry once the school year wraps up.

Talk about dire news.

Even before the pandemic, there were programs in place to offer free or reduced-price school meals to children in need. But since the start of the pandemic, additional funding has helped provide more free school meals, and that alone has helped many children avoid going hungry at a time when their families' finances may have taken a hit.

But now, many kids are once again facing food insecurity. That's because the current waivers that expand the number of children eligible for free school meals have not been extended beyond June 30. And if lawmakers don't get moving on an extension, the results could be catastrophic.

A major lifeline kids can't afford to lose

Right now, about 30 million children are eligible for free meals at school, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's up from about 20 million who qualified based on household income prior to the pandemic.

It's possible that some of the 10 million additional kids who are benefitting from free school meals aren't facing income or food insecurity. But many of those children may be reliant on school meals to stay properly nourished. And if that program goes away, these children and their families could be in for a serious struggle. This especially holds true right now, seeing as how inflation has caused the cost of food to soar.

Now to be clear, kids who didn't qualify for free school meals before the pandemic might now qualify under the old system if their families' income has decreased. The problem, though, is that some families will inevitably get stuck in that in-between area, where they're not earning enough to comfortably feed their families but are earning too much to qualify for free school meals.

If the aforementioned waivers aren't extended, to qualify for free meals for the upcoming school year, a family of three will generally need to earn less than $30,000. But that doesn't mean that a family of three earning $40,000 isn't facing major food insecurity.

Let's also not forget that many families depleted their savings during the pandemic when they lost their jobs or saw their income take a hit. So now, those families don't have a financial cushion to fall back on to tackle an increase in food costs.

Summer meals could go away, too

Food insecurity when school is not in session is a big issue for many families, too. The waivers did a great job of providing children with meals during the summer months. But if the waivers aren't extended, only communities where at least 50% of children qualify for free meals can receive them during the summer.

All told, the consequences of not extending free school meal programs could be severe. As it is, many families with children are struggling in the absence of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments they became dependent on last year. Taking away free meals could spur a massive wave of food insecurity -- and cause a lot of families undue heartache.

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