Child Hunger Provisions in the Build Back Better Act
Maine has the highest rate of childhood food insecurity in New England, with 1 in 5 children lacking access to consistent, reliable nutrition. The federal child nutrition programs, like school breakfast and lunch, afterschool meals, and summer meals, are a critical component of addressing child hunger and alleviating the burden on food insecure households. The pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity in Maine and across the nation, so these programs have become more important than ever. During the pandemic, the USDA temporarily expanded free school breakfast and lunch, and created a temporary pandemic grocery benefit for children that rely on school meals. Those measures are set to expire after this school year, but Congress is currently considering provisions included in the Build Back Better Act (BBB) that would continue to address the high rates of food insecurity in Maine and the United States.
The Build Back Better Act would invest nearly $35 billion dollars in critical child nutrition programs, helping to address and alleviate childhood food insecurity across the United States. Child nutrition provisions in the BBB include:
- Expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision
- Making the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT) pilot a permanent, nationwide program
- Including Medicaid as a means-tested program to directly certify children to receive school meals at no cost
- Extra funding to update school kitchens and to support local food, scratch cooking, and other health-focused nutrition programs
Community Eligibility Provision
In its current form, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools in high poverty areas to serve universal free breakfast and lunch. Schools are CEP-eligible if their identified student percentage (ISP), the percent of students directly certified for free meals, is at least 40%. The BBB would drop the ISP to 25%, which would expand CEP eligibility and make it possible for more schools to participate. This would allow nearly 9 million more students nationwide to receive free school meals. It would also reduce the administrative burden on school nutrition programs by eliminating the need to collect school meal applications every year.
Maine recently became one of the first states to pass a law to provide school meals at no cost to all students, regardless of their family’s income. While this is a monumental step in the right direction, it does not eliminate the need for non-CEP schools to continue to collect paperwork from families year after year. It will also require a significant investment from the state. If Congress supports the expansion of CEP federally, this would lower the state’s contribution to provide school meals to all and also eliminate the paperwork burden on more schools and families.
Before the pandemic, at least 43% of Maine’s student body relied on school meals for basic nutrition. During the summer when school is out, food insecurity can increase for those children as they lose access to daily reliable school meals. There are free summer meals for anyone 18 and younger all across the state, but transportation is a huge barrier to access in our highly rural state. Summer EBT can solve this problem, by providing eligible students extra money for groceries while school is out. This also helps to alleviate household food insecurity by bolstering the family’s food budget.
Medicaid Direct Certification
Currently in Maine, any child in a household receiving SNAP or TANF, or children who are migrant, homeless, in foster care or Head Start, are categorically eligible to receive school meals at no cost. The BBB proposal to include Medicaid to this list of means-tested programs to directly certify students to receive free meals at school has the potential to expand the number of children receiving those meals at no cost, as the eligibility threshold for Mainecare is broader than the eligibility threshold for other social support and nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program.
Funding to Support School Nutrition
School nutrition programs are chronically underfunded, meaning that they often lack the equipment, staffing, and resources to provide scratch-cooked and local food for school breakfast and lunch. Simultaneously, children across our state and nation lack exposure to a wide variety of healthy foods and are less likely to try unfamiliar choices on their tray. There are provisions included in the BBB to upgrade school kitchen infrastructure and provide training to kitchen staff on the preparation and use of local, scratch ingredients. There is also funding to create a nutrition and food education pilot to expose children to healthy food, with the eventual goal to have food educators in every school in the country.
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