Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is currently blocking the extension of federal waivers that allow schools to offer universal free lunches throughout the pandemic. This move will potentially deny millions of children no-cost meals in the near future.
Half of all children in households in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky live below 200% of the federal poverty line. The poverty rate in the state is 18.3% and one out of every 5.5 residents lives in poverty.
You would think that in a state in which there are so many people struggling to get by, lawmakers would be trying to ensure that children don’t have to suffer the impact of poverty where it hurts the most, their tummies.
You would be mistaken.
The provisions to extend the nutrition waivers are found in an omnibus spending bill meant to keep the government funded that is currently facing forceful opposition from McConnell and Republicans. Congress has just a few days to pass a funding package and avoid a government shutdown. McConnell is arguing that the waivers and other programs like it are too costly, but if these waivers are allowed to lapse, the average school district will face a 40% cut in federal reimbursements for lunches.
These waivers were first approved in March 2020 to assist schools and other entities in keeping kids fed and healthy despite the challenges presented by the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic. They were repeatedly extended ever since, but now Republicans are blocking renewing the waivers by claiming that they were supposed to only serve as temporary relief and not a permanent form of assistance.
The USDA has been reimbursing schools an average of $4.56 per meal, as opposed to the usual amount of $2.91. Without these waivers, schools will not be able to pay for these meals for their students.
Republicans like Arkansas Sen. John Boozman — the GOP ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee — and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) were not responsive when asked to comment on this issue.
92% of school meal programs are experiencing difficulties due to disruptions in the supply chain and the uncertainty over the waivers is also impacting the ability school districts have to plan their menus and place orders. Schools are forced to pay more for food due to shortages of cooks, drivers, food prep personnel, and inventory.
Progressive Democratic lawmakers like Representative Ilhan Omar and Senator Bernie Sanders have tried without success to establish a federal program to ensure that all schoolchildren can access free breakfast, lunch, and dinner regardless of family income.
School meal waivers and other federal relief programs help low-income families manage costs and expenses during the pandemic and they help reduce hunger among poor children. Advocates fear that if the current nutrition waivers are allowed to expire, hunger will rise sharply in 2022.
US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has sharply criticized both McConnell and McCarthy for attacking these waivers meant to keep children fed. “This weekend, I’ve made a request to speak to Leader McConnell and Leader McCarthy,” Said Vilsack. “Now, I realize that they’ve got a lot on their plate. But 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. There’s no reason for this.”
Other Democrats echoed Vilsack’s sharp criticism of allowing these programs to expire. “No kid should have to go hungry, it’s really as simple as that,” Said Senator Patty Murray of Washington. “It shouldn’t be controversial to make sure our schools can keep kids fed.”
It’s truly a deep moral failure that a country that spends $700,000,000,000+ annually on military spending can’t afford to invest in ensuring that school children can eat lunch. We can be better than this but unfortunately, Mitch McConnell and the rest of his cronies are determined to obstruct progress every step of the way, even if children are collateral damage.
Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member representing Florida. He tweets from @tomaskenn.