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Biden Seeks to Expand Free School Meal Programs

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/28/2022 Kristina Peterson
© Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON—President Biden pushed to expand free school meals Wednesday as part of what he called a new national strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating by 2030.

The administration’s attempt to stamp out hunger comes as rising food costs have become a political liability for Democrats ahead of this fall’s midterm elections. Grocery prices increased 0.7% in August from a month earlier and 13.5% over the past year, according to the Labor Department.

“My plan would make at least nine million more children eligible for free school meals—a major first step for free meals for every single student,” Mr. Biden said at a White House conference focused on nutrition, hunger and health.

Republicans, who said the White House had done little outreach to them ahead of the conference, expressed skepticism about broadening federal nutrition programs, including free school meals.

“It is important to utilize taxpayer funds in a meaningful way to help those most in need; providing free meals to the children of doctors, lawyers and lobbyists does not do that,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, which oversees child nutrition programs.

A program in place during the pandemic that allowed schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all children ended at the start of this school year, when lawmakers allowed it to lapse.

While Mr. Biden wants to fully restore free universal school meals, administration officials said as a first step they would press Congress to expand a program known as “community eligibility” that allows schools and school districts in high-poverty areas to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, without requiring their parents to apply for the benefits.

Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to restore universal free school meals in the stopgap spending bill currently moving through the House and Senate and have indicated they are skeptical of other efforts to widen free school meals beyond the population already eligible.

Currently schools or districts are eligible for the community eligibility program if 40% of their students receive food-stamp benefits or participate in another safety net program tied to household income. The administration has estimated that lowering that threshold to 25% would result in about 9 million additional children receiving the free school meals but didn’t provide an estimate of what that would cost.

Under the current guidelines, children in a family of four are eligible for free school meals if their household income is roughly $36,000 or less, or $51,000 for reduced-price meals.

“The working poor—they’re the ones who fall through the cracks,” Diane Golzynski, child nutrition director for the state of Michigan, said in an interview.

Some families who took advantage of the universal free school meals program during the pandemic said they didn’t see a need to keep it in place.

“This form of government largess seems wasteful,” said Bob Donnett, a father of 10 children, six of whom ate the free lunch offered by their elementary school last year. “I’d like to see those truly in need get the assistance and have those who can provide on their own do so.”

Mr. Donnett, who lives near Minneapolis, said his elementary school children are now allowed to buy hot lunch at school twice a month and otherwise pack their own food.

The administration said it would also push Congress to expand access to food-stamp benefits, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including to many formerly incarcerated individuals. Individuals who were convicted of a federal or state felony involving the possession, use or distribution of a controlled substance are barred from receiving food-stamp benefits, but many states have limited or rolled back that ban.

To make it easier for people to use their benefits, the administration said it would expand online shopping options for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, and propose updating regulations to permanently allow people to shop online using food-stamp benefits, which surged during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some GOP lawmakers have expressed interest in programs aimed at motivating people to eat healthier food and reducing diseases tied to diet, including an approach known as “food is medicine.”

Sen. Roger Marshall (R., Kan.) said he was open to a White House push to start a pilot program in Medicare to cover “medically tailored meals,” which are designed by a nutrition professional for people with diet-related health conditions, often who have just been hospitalized.

The new White House plan also aims to boost consumers’ ability to identify healthy food.

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday announced updated criteria for a food to be labeled as “healthy,” allowing some additional foods including nuts, seeds and certain fish such as salmon, to be eligible for the label.

Administration officials also said the FDA would develop and propose a new label that would go on the front of many packaged goods to highlight key nutritional information.

In addition to the detailed nutritional label on the back or side of many food items, nutrition advocates have pressed for another, more condensed label on the front of the package that would visually flag certain health risks, such as high sugar or saturated-fat content. Industry groups have said there isn’t enough evidence to show such labels influence consumer behavior and have questioned whether the FDA has the authority to mandate them.

The only previous White House conference focused on hunger, nutrition and health was held in 1969, under President Richard Nixon, and led to the authorization of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the expansion of the national school lunch program and helped spur the development of food-based dietary guidelines.

During his Wednesday speech, Mr. Biden asked whether Rep. Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.), who was killed in a car accident last month, was in attendance.

“Jackie are you here? Where’s Jackie? She was going to be here,” Mr. Biden said. Ms. Walorski was an outspoken advocate for addressing hunger in the U.S. and sponsored legislation to convene the conference, which showed a memorial video of her Wednesday afternoon.

Following the speech, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly refused to acknowledge that Mr. Biden had misspoken.

Ms. Jean-Pierre said the president is planning to meet with Ms. Walorski’s family at the White House on Friday.

“So of course, she was on his mind. She was top of mind for the president,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “He very much looks forward to discussing her remarkable legacy of public service with them when he sees her family.”

Write to Kristina Peterson at


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