As published in Dallas Morning News, December 12, 2022.
By Bob Sanborn and Laura Hayes
According to Feeding America, 1 out of 5 children in North Texas faces hunger due to limited resources, poverty and parental unemployment. Just like a car running out of gas, hungry kids can’t learn, and research has proved how access to nutritional meals is vital to a child’s development, academic performance, overall health and well-being, and attentiveness.
It’s important that the necessary measures are in place, especially for poor and marginalized communities that will continue to face hunger and other consequences which are attributed to the lack of nutritious meals.
In Texas, more than 3 million children rely on the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-cost nutritious meals. Research has shown that children are at a higher risk of food insecurity during the summer when they are not able to access food from school.
Ensuring that all children get a free school meal regardless of family income was vital during the pandemic thanks to waivers and federal funding. Although the federal government has now limited its funding, the state of Texas has the power to make sure all kids are provided with a free meal, regardless of income.
Full and healthy eating during childhood is important to ensure a child is getting nutrition for growth and development, and to maintain a healthy body weight. The pandemic contributed to an increase in households, especially single-parent and communities of color, that were in dire need of access to food and other resources as more people were experiencing food insecurity.
To alleviate the burden placed on schools due to the pandemic, Congress passed legislation allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to temporarily provide free meals to millions of low-income students. Although the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing food insecurity issues, these waivers increased the ability for students to receive free meals while following COVID-19 safety measures.
Pre-pandemic requirements hindered access to meals for many families. During the summer, if parents did not have the time or means to drop off their children and wait for them to eat, the child couldn’t eat, even if they qualified. Families who did not fill out the required paperwork to determine their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals were also prevented from accessing meals throughout the school year.
In response, the pandemic waivers allowed schools that did not have the budget to provide universal free meals to be reimbursed by the federal government. The waivers also expanded the accessibility of school meals by providing delivery services. Parents were also given the option to pick up meals within a specific timeframe, offering flexibility during a highly stressful time. As a result, the number of students who were eligible to receive free meals increased by 10 million nationally, compared to the free and reduced lunch program.
A few days prior to the waivers expiring on June 30th, a bipartisan solution was signed into law by President Joe Biden to extend flexibility for children to receive meals throughout the rest of the summer and the 2022-23 school year. The Keep Kids Fed Act extended many of the original waivers, but the most important waiver allowing every student to be provided a free meal regardless of their family’s income was excluded.
As a result, starting on September 30, students need to submit an eligibility form to determine if they qualify for either free or reduced-price meals. While some are able to receive free and reduced meals, many children in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area are suffering because they do not meet the eligibility requirements or have not filled out the paperwork.
The time to act is now! The state of Texas holds the power to make the best decisions for our children. We are the ones who decide whether they eat or not, whether they grow and develop in a healthy manner, and whether we provide the necessary nutrition to improve students’ academic success.
It all starts with food and providing all students in Texas with access to free federally funded meals, regardless of families’ income. It is our mission to stop failing the innocent. Let’s come together and call upon our senators and representatives to ensure that all Texas children are well-fed and ready to learn!
Bob Sanborn is president and CEO of Children at Risk (C@R), a Texas-based nonprofit focused on research and advocacy for children. Laura Hayes is the regional director of C@R North Texas. They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.