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S. 1530 (117th): Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021

Should the program be a pandemic-only measure, as it was originally intended?


For children living with food insecurity, school meals can be a lifeline.

With so many schools shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration’s Agriculture Department provided funding for “universal” free school meals through June 30, 2021, the end of the just-completed school year from additional funding provided by Congress. That provision applied to any student, regardless of income.

The Biden administration extended the “universal” free school meal program for another year, through June 30, 2022, the end of next school year, again after additional funding was appropriated by Congress.

Republicans say it’s time to return the program back to its status quo, as the pandemic-era conditions that necessitated its original expansion dissipate. But some Democrats on the more progressive wing of the party advocate for the opposite.

What the legislation does

The Universal School Meals Program Act would lengthen the current temporary program by making it permanent.

The Senate version was introduced on May 10 as S. 1530, by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The House version was introduced the next day on May 11 as H.R. 3115, by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN5).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the current temporary extension has been a success, and nobody — especially no juvenile — in the U.S. should go hungry because of conditions outside their control..

“No child in the richest country in the world should face hunger,” Rep. Omar said in a press release. “One in six children in my state of Minnesota don’t know where their next meal will come from. Families across Minnesota and nationwide are still struggling from the fallout of the pandemic, and children are often bearing the brunt of this crisis. [The legislation would] ensure all of our children have the nutrition they need to succeed.”

“In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that millions of children struggle with hunger every day,” Sen. Sanders said in a separate press release. “Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger. What we’ve seen during this pandemic is that a universal approach to school meals works. We cannot go backwards. I am proud to introduce this legislation alongside my colleagues to ensure no student goes hungry again.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that while the legislation may sound nice, much of it is actually a giveaway to the well-off — something that the progressive sponsors ostensibly oppose for most other public policies.

“Should the federal government take the hard-earned dollars of American families and use it to give welfare to the middle-class and wealthy? The answer should be obvious: Of course not. This turns welfare on its head. Welfare is supposed to serve as a safety net for those in need,” the Heritage Foundation’s Daren Bakst and Jonathan Butcher wrote for the Sacramento Bee. “But the Biden administration and some legislators would like to turn the needs-based federal school meal programs into a blanket entitlement: free school meals for all.”

“Ironically, many of the same people arguing for universal free school meals would be the first to complain about how government works for the wealthy and not low-income families. Yet that is exactly what they are doing with the community eligibility provision and this push for universal free school meals.”

Odds of passage

Rep. Omar’s prior 2019 version attracted 17 cosponsors, all Democrats. It never received a committee vote, although her party controlled the chamber.

The current House version has attracted a notably larger 52 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in either the House Agriculture; Education and Labor; or Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Sen. Sanders’ prior 2019 version attracted zero cosponsors and never received a committee vote in the then-Republican controlled chamber.

The current Senate version has attracted a notably larger 12 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

Last updated Jul 8, 2021. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 2, 2022.

Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021

This bill revises requirements under the food and nutrition programs of the Department of Agriculture, such as the school lunch and breakfast programs.

For example, the bill permanently provides free meals to all school children regardless of income.

The bill increases the reimbursement rate for school food authorities participating in the food and nutrition programs.

The bill also prohibits school food authorities from (1) physically segregating or otherwise discriminating against any child participating in the free breakfast program, or (2) overtly identifying a child participating in the program with a special token or announcement.

Additionally, the bill expands the summer food service program by making all children eligible for participation in the program.

Further, the bill revises eligibility determinations for measuring poverty to include runaway or homeless youth, foster children, migratory children, and children participating in specified programs (e.g., Head Start).