On April 28, President Biden released the American Families Plan, a comprehensive plan that would help ensure that children have access to the nutrition they need year-round. These provisions would help eliminate summer childhood hunger and ensure access to free school meals to millions of students from low-income households. Additionally, this legislation would increase the number of high-poverty schools that can offer free meals to all students, support school nutrition operations and their efforts to provide healthy and appealing school meals, and eliminate unnecessary financial burdens on millions of households with low incomes.
Below are four ways that the American Families Plan would boost child nutrition no matter what time of year it is.
- Expand Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) to all students eligible to receive free and reduced-price school meals (29 million children) and make the program permanent. The limited reach of the summer nutrition programs highlights the need for a complementary approach to combat food insecurity, which increases during the summer when school meals are no longer available. Summer EBT provides families with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals a monthly benefit on a debit card to purchase food during the summer months. Evaluations of Summer EBT and initial research on Pandemic EBT, which provides the value of school meals on an EBT card to families who lost access to free or reduced-price school meals due to school closures related to COVID-19, show that this approach helps reduce food insecurity.
- Increase the number of high-poverty schools that are able to offer free school meals to all children through community eligibility. Currently, schools, groups of schools, and school districts with about two-thirds of their student body qualifying for free school meals are able to implement community eligibility so that breakfast and lunch can be offered at no charge to all students. The reimbursement is based on those who are certified to receive free school meals without an application because their household participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), or Medicaid (in some states), or are homeless, migrant, in foster care, or enrolled in Head Start. This is a subset of the children who would qualify for free and reduced-price school meals because it does not include children who would be certified through a school meal application. The school’s percentage of such students, called the Identified Student Percentage (ISP), is multiplied by 1.6, which determines the percentage of meals reimbursed at the free rate; the rest are reimbursed at the significantly lower paid rate. Under current rules, a school with an ISP of 50 percent would receive the free reimbursement rate for 80 percent of the meals served and the paid rate for 20 percent of the meals served.
The American Families Plan proposes to increase the multiplier to 2.5 percent for elementary schools and 1.9 percent for middle and high schools, making community eligibility a financially viable option for more high-poverty schools and multiplying the gains of this initiative. The plan also would allow elementary schools to participate if 25 percent of their students are directly certified for free school meals, instead of the current 40 percent threshold.
Community eligibility increases participation in school meals, allowing more students to experience the educational and health benefits linked to participating in school meals, reduces red tape and administrative costs, improves economies of scale, and eliminates school meals debt.
- Make it possible for children who receive Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to be automatically eligible for free school meals in all states. This would ensure that the children who need school meals most will be able to access them. It also would reduce administrative work for school districts by reducing the number of school meals applications that schools must collect and process and improve program integrity within the school nutrition programs by relying on verified eligibility information from other means-tested programs. Complete details of the proposal have not been made available, but the Medicaid certification would likely follow the current approach and require that households also have an income consistent with eligibility for free school meals.
- Provide $1 billion for a healthy foods initiative to build upon the improved school nutrition standards. This would include offering support and enhanced reimbursement rates for schools meeting higher standards. Such an investment provides an important opportunity to improve the nutrition quality and appeal of school meals.
The pandemic has highlighted the critical role the child nutrition programs play in supporting children and their families. Strengthening and expanding these programs will support education and health as the nation continues to deal with and eventually recovers from the pandemic. FRAC looks forward to working with the Biden administration and Congress to ensure these provisions, as well as additional investments in these programs, are part of the country’s response to ensuring families recover from this public health and economic crisis.
*The American Family Plan also includes other critical investments outside the child nutrition programs needed to offset rising hunger by providing much-needed assistance to households with low-incomes. To learn more, see FRAC’s statement on the American Families Plan.