By Christopher and Jasper
CHICAGO (Reuters) – Aid that has helped schools feed millions of American children over the past two years will be extended, pending congressional approval, after senators reached a deal after fears it could expire at the end of the month.
Pandemic aid has helped calm US household hunger rates in recent years, but hunger has risen again after child tax credit payments expired in January, while soaring food prices depleted family budgets.
The federal Child Retention Act, sponsored by Michigan Representative Debbie Stabeno and Republican John Bozeman of Arkansas, will extend some school feeding waivers introduced in 2020. These allowances expanded free meals for all students, relaxed dietary guidelines, and expanded summer meal offerings.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement on Wednesday that the deal “will alleviate uncertainty and bring a measure of relief to our schools, summer sites and childcare feeding programmes.”
The bill calls for increased pre-pandemic funding levels, but reduces recent funding and eligibility after several failed attempts to extend the program.
Many schools have already canceled summer meal programs this year, expecting waivers to expire. Others say they will expand the offerings if the bill is passed.
“We’ve called a lot of parents, asking if we’re serving (summer) meals,” said Michael Jasper, a nutrition services superintendent for Holmen School District in West Central Wisconsin. “We were feeding between 200 and 300 children a day, in a town of 10,000 people. Clearly there is a need.”
Since 2020, fast-food meals have been available at expanded locations, doubling servings in 2019, according to No Kid Hungry, a children’s nutrition advocacy group.
During the school year, federal benefits were paid out to $4.56 per meal served, regardless of income.
The new proposal reverts to a tiered approach, increasing the reimbursement rate to $4.06 for eligible free students and 75 cents for paid meals. The bill also increased the income entitlement to free meals for families just above the previous limit.
(Reporting by Christopher and Jasper; Editing by Margarita Choi)
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