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Universal school meals, enacted at the beginning of the pandemic, should be made permanent

Studies show that students who show up hungry to class lose the ability to concentrate and have worse academic performance. This can have lifelong consequences.

School lunch
MinnPost file photo by Erin Hinrichs

When I was a child living in a refugee camp, I distinctly remember the vacant feeling of going to bed on an empty stomach when my family didn’t have enough food to eat. I remember the weakness, the inability to concentrate and the desperation for it to end.

Recently, I heard from Will, a high school student in my Minneapolis district, who faces similar challenges in a very different context. The pandemic exacerbated already tight family finances. As a result, he often goes to school without breakfast and finds it difficult to concentrate.  “When I’m in class, my lunch isn’t until 1:00,” he told me. “I’ll just be sitting there like, ‘Oh my gosh, when is lunch gonna come,’ because I haven’t eaten all day.”

No child should go through this.

But at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of families across the country faced a similar crisis. Schools were closed, and on top of that, many parents were without jobs, income or their regular hours at work. Students who previously qualified for free or reduced price school meals were now home and hungry. Many parents were forced to scrape together the funds to afford an extra meal for their kids, in addition to the burden of lost wages and caring for kids full time.

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So in March 2020, I proposed a simple solution: Let schools provide meals at no cost to families. I called it the Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students or MEALS Act (we love acronyms in Congress), and in partnership with the House Education and Labor Committee and Congressional Leadership, we were able to negotiate its inclusion in the bipartisan CARES Act, which passed in March 2020.

The results were a resounding success in Minnesota and across the country. The MEALS Act gives schools the flexibility to make changes to their meal program to ensure their ability to provide meals to students by allowing the increase of federal costs for the purpose of providing meals. Approximately 22 million kids relied on school meals before the pandemic, and it’s estimated that the MEALS Act and resulting waivers helped an additional 10 million get fed. It also kept people employed preparing and delivering food for kids who need it.

But like most issues in Washington, the story isn’t so simple. The program was set to expire at the end of June if Congress didn’t act. Yet, after Senate Republicans threatened to block additional funding for the meals, I was able to work with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee chairs on a compromise to extend the meal waivers through the summer. And last Friday the extension passed, ensuring these meals will not expire!

In the midst of horrific decision taking away our basic rights, it’s hard to find hope. But this bill was a shining example of the government working at one if its core functions — making sure the American people don’t go hungry. And it was a reminder that our country can do amazing things when our government works as intended.

But we cannot stop here. Supply chain issues and the rising cost of food are making the hunger crisis worse. Food prices are expected to increase up to 7.5% this year, stretching already tight family budgets. Some 13 million children already faced hunger in our country before the pandemic. Three out of every four teachers say they see students regularly come to school hungry, and a majority of them regularly buy food for students out of their own pockets.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar

And we know that getting nutritious meals doesn’t just prevent hunger. It has benefits for a child’s physical and mental development. Studies show that students who show up hungry to class lose the ability to concentrate and have worse academic performance. This can have lifelong consequences.

The only lasting solution is to provide school meals free of charge to any student who wants it — as many districts have done during the pandemic. This would reduce burdensome paperwork requirements and make sure that no child in the wealthiest country in the world goes hungry at school. It’s also overwhelmingly supported by Democrats, Republicans and independents. That’s why I have introduced a bill — along with the support of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Tina Smith and leaders like Valerie Castile — to do just that.

We have an opportunity to prove that a government of the people, by the people and for the people can still deliver big things. We can prevent tens of millions of children across the country from going hungry, and ensure that students, teachers and parents all have the support they need in these difficult times.

Ilhan Omar represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House.