Anti-hunger advocates push free school meals, but Vilsack says make the case
Anti-hunger advocates who are gathered virtually this week for the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference are urging Congress and the Biden administration to establish universal free school meals, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the conference today that advocates first need to gather the data to make a case for the free meals.
The government has authorized free school meals during the coronavirus pandemic, although in reality the number of meals served has gone down 30% and the federal reimbursements to the schools for meals has gone down dramatically over the past year.
During Vilsack’s virtual presentation to the anti-hunger conference today, Food Research & Action Center President Luis Guardia told him that there has been a lot of “excitement” about free school meals throughout the conference, and other presenters said free school meals should be part of the reauthorization of child nutrition programs that Congress is expected to undertake this year. In normal times, the law calls for middle-class children to pay for the meals while lower-income children get meals at free or reduced prices.
“That is going to require resources,” Vilsack said. The pandemic, he noted, has reinforced the importance of the public school system and elevated “the importance of health and the connection between health and the ability to withstand viruses like COVID-19.”
Vilsack told the advocates they would have to make “the economic case, the health care case, the learning case. It is up to us to identify what the benefits would be, weigh them against the costs so you can make the case.”
He noted that the national school lunch program had been established after World War II because the number of young people who were not strong enough to serve in the military led to concerns that the citizenry was not well enough fed “to defend ourselves.”
“That was the rationale,” Vilsack said. “What is the rationale that we can use now that speaks to everyone about why this is an important expenditure?”
Turning to one of his frequent themes, Vilsack also said that the argument would also need to be tied “to the transformation of the food system” to achieve both food security and nutrition security, particularly to reduce obesity.
The government today spends $160 billion on Medicare and Medicaid to address diabetes while the budget for the Agriculture Department is only $140 billion to $150 billion, he said. If the diabetes expenditure could be cut in half, “what do you do with the $80 billion?” he asked, adding it could be spent on free school meals or raising the benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“This is how I think you begin to think about this – explain the benefits, make a compelling case.”
During a video presentation, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said that the child nutrition programs should be reauthorized this year. In his video, Senate Agriculture ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., did not propose a timeline but said he would work with Stabenow. Boozman noted his interest in modernizing the summer meals program.
The child nutrition programs, which also include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and commodity distribution programs for child and adult care, were last reauthorized under the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which then-First Lady Michelle Obama championed. The child nutrition programs have continued under appropriations bills.
–The Hagstrom Report
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