Mitch McConnell Leads Effort to Deny Millions of Children Free School Lunches

Federal waivers that have given U.S. schools the flexibility to offer universal free lunches throughout the pandemic are at risk of ending as Senate Republicans — led by Mitch McConnell — stonewall a proposed extension of the relief measures, potentially depriving millions of children of no-cost meals in the coming months.

Politico reported Monday that McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is “forcefully opposing” a provision to extend the federal school lunch waivers as part of an omnibus government funding package that Congress must pass by midnight Friday to avert a shutdown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has estimated that the average school district will face a 40% cut in federal reimbursements for meals if Congress allows the waivers — first approved in March 2020 and extended thereafter — to lapse. The USDA’s authority to extend the school meal waivers further is currently set to expire at the end of June.

“Mitch McConnell never needed free lunch to get a hot meal at school. He never needed food stamps to survive,” Charles Booker, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Kentucky, wrote in response to the GOP leader’s obstruction. “Nearly half of Kentucky’s children live in households below 200% of the federal poverty line. I was one of them. He doesn’t see us.”

Nina Turner, an Ohio progressive running for U.S. Congress, called McConnell’s efforts to block a waiver extension “evil.”

Research showsSchool meal waivers along with other federal aid programs have helped reduce costs for low-income families during pandemic and reduced hunger among poor children. widespread problemIn the U.S.

Progressive lawmakers, including Rep. Ilhanomar (D-Minn.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.), have failed to succeed. pushedFor a permanent federal program offering free breakfast, lunch and dinner to all schoolchildren, regardless their family income.

According to Feeding America — a relief organization that’s imploring Congress to extend the school meal waivers — 13 million children across the nation were at risk of facing food insecurity in 2021. Advocates fear that hunger is set to rise sharply in 2022 due to Congress’ failure to pass an extension of a separate federal program, the boosted child tax credit.

“As it stands, schools and communities are in a state of limbo,” said Vince Hall, Feeding America’s chief government relations officer. “As they work to provide food for children daily, they need continued flexibilities to safely plan for and offer summer meal programs and nutrition assistance during the next school year. Congress can and should provide these schools and community providers with peace of mind by extending waiver authority in upcoming legislation.”

“For millions of school children whose lives and educations have been impacted by the pandemic, school meals are often their only reliable nutrition source,” Hall added. “These waivers offer stability, predictability, and an assurance that children will get the meals they need any time of the year.”

As of Monday CNN reportedThe omnibus funding package is expected not to include a waiver extension. billions of dollars for the Pentagon amid Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine.

The consequences could be grave if Congress fails to extend waivers due to Republican opposition. As the Washington Post summarized:

A school will receive an average reimbursement of $4.56 for each meal they serve. This is in addition to the $2.91 that it would get for meals purchased. Schools will continue to pay higher prices for food, labor, supplies.

Advocates for these programs say schools could lose crucial flexibility in their operations. Schools have been able to adapt program rules to meet labor shortages and pandemics. This includes the ability to provide meals in the classroom and grab-and-go meals to children who are unable to attend school due to quarantines.

Schools could lose the ability to substitute foods to meet requirements when they can’t get what they ordered because of unexpected supply chain disruptions, advocates say. Without waivers, schools may be subject to financial penalties if they fail meet federal requirements because of supply chain problems. The states may penalize the districts if they can’t provide a variety or obtain whole grain-rich products meeting federal standards.

Tom Vilsack, the head of the USDA, told the newspaper in an interview Monday that “the failure of Republicans to respond to this means that kids are going to have less on their plates.”

“And there’s no reason for this,” said Vilsack.