In his first 100 days in office, President-elect Joe Biden will have a lot on his plate. Mr. Biden has put forward ambitious plans to restart the economy, address income inequality, advance racial equity, protect the environment, fight climate change, and strengthen rural communities, to name a few. School meals, an often-overlooked component of our education system, has the potential to drive each of the new administration’s goals at a national scale. After all, 30 million children receive school food each day.
As the Biden administration, including U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary nominee Tom Vilsack, and the new Congress set their policy priorities, providing free school meals for all kids and delivering much-needed resources to school nutrition departments need to be a top priority. It is important to note that Mr. Vilsack carries a history of advancing federal nutrition programs from both an access and a meal quality lens, particularly during his tenure as USDA secretary during the Obama Administration.
Taking swift action in these areas would reduce rapidly increasing childhood hunger, stimulate local economic activity, support climate resilience, and strengthen the health and wellbeing of our communities.
Just as we don’t charge for textbooks and school bus rides, we should not charge students for something as vital as food. School food is such an important community resource that even when the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online, cafeterias continued to provide meals for kids and families. Currently, about 14 million children are not getting enough to eat, with food insecurity rates higher for kids of color than white children. According to a June report from the Brookings Institution, about three in ten Black households with children and one in four Hispanic households with children lacked sufficient food, while the rate was under one in ten for white households with children.
Thankfully, in response to school closures due to COVID-19, Congress has temporarily allowed schools to provide free meals through the end of the school year. But that will not be enough to support a full recovery from the pandemic and a thriving school system. We must ensure that all kids can continue accessing school meals for free, well beyond the duration of the pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused.
The new administration and Congress can also take steps to resource school nutrition departments, while also supporting farmers, producers, laborers, and communities all along the supply chain. With fewer students eating school meals during recent closures, many school districts’ revenue and federal reimbursements have significantly declined. Schools are also incurring additional, unforeseen costs associated with distributing emergency meals and adhering to new safety guidelines, while continuing to cover the cost of labor and ingredients.
Furthermore, we must invest in school meal infrastructure and staffing, giving schools the support they need to prepare more fresh foods onsite, pay staff a living wage, and invest in professional development and resources for the people who feed our children. Elected officials have the opportunity to do this through Child Nutrition Reauthorization (which was allowed to expire in 2015).
Finally, the new administration and Congress have an opportunity to leverage over $18 billion in current federal investment in school meal programs as a tool for climate resilience, economic development, and a more equitable food system — all through school meals. Federal leaders can affect long-term change by leveraging this investment toward more just policies and practices.
One example of such an investment is incentivizing farm to school purchasing, which prioritizes sustainable agriculture and animal production practices that mitigate climate change and protect the health of farmworkers and their communities. Another is incentivizing schools to purchase from smaller, minority-led, local food businesses and historically marginalized farmers. Due to systemic barriers and discrimination, farmers of color represent just four percent of all U.S. farmers. By purchasing locally and regionally, we can both strengthen rural economies and advance racial equity, providing farmers and producers of color with stable and consistent markets. Lawmakers now have the opportunity to incentivize both these practices.
In the crucial first 100 days, we urge the new administration, the USDA, and Congress to recognize the untapped potential of school meals and work in a bipartisan manner to help achieve these goals. Through these common-sense policy solutions, our federal leaders can ensure a healthier, more equitable future for our children, economy, and planet.
Mamiko Vuillemin is the senior manager of policy and advocacy at FoodCorps, a national nonprofit that connects kids to healthy food in schools.
Krystal Oriadha is the senior director of programs and policy at National Farm to School Network.
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