Bill would make school lunches free in state

State Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Pittsburgh, is pictured speaking at an August event in Ross Township.

House Democrat Emily Kinkead wants the state Legislature to make official what the Warren County School District already has — make school lunches free for all students.

Kinkead, D-Pittsburgh, has introduced a legislative sponsorship memorandum for legislation that would extend free lunches beyond those who have a household income that is at least 185% of the federal poverty level.

Free lunches and breakfast were standard during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the federal government provided waivers from regulations limiting their availability and provided enough funding for school districts to offer access to free breakfast and lunch.

The waivers were then extended throughout the summer months, but the waivers for free meals for all students ended.

“While these changes help schools facing rising food, gas, and labor costs, the federal action unfortunately does little to help the students and families enduring the same financial strain,” Kinkead wrote in her memo. “Once again, only students with a family income of 185% of the poverty level or below will qualify for free or reduced school meals this school year. The end of the federal waivers will be especially difficult for families who fall just outside the USDA’s income-eligibility guidelines. Additionally, because of rising supply chain costs, some schools are being forced to raise meal prices, meaning that families who were paying for meals before the pandemic will now pay even more for students’ breakfasts and lunches — and more children will go hungry as a result.”

School lunches and breakfasts will be free to all Warren County School District students in the coming school year after the school district elected to participate in the Community Eligibility Program for 2022-23. All district schools are included, but the program does come at a cost of about $286,000.

“In my eyes it’s not really a gamble to say, ‘let’s feed them all,'” Jeff Dougherty said when the board discussed the issue in April.

Before the pandemic, families were eligible for free breakfast and lunch based on their income. Schools in predominantly low-income areas will be allowed to serve breakfast and lunch to everyone for free, as before. According to the Associated Press, since waiving the eligibility requirement during the pandemic, the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees school meal programs, has seen the number of participating students soar. During this past school year, about 30 million kids a day were getting free meals, compared to 20 million before the pandemic, said Cindy Long, administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

The AP reported earlier this year that California and Maine made universal meals permanent last year and Vermont, where Murphy and her family live, is continuing the free meals for all public school students for another year using surplus state education funding. In Massachusetts, universal free school meals was eventually passed and, in Colorado, the Legislature passed a bill to ask voters this November whether to fund free universal breakfast and lunch at schools.

Kinkead wants to extend that conversation to Pennsylvania.

“The pandemic has shown us how students and educators benefit when school meals are free for all kids,” she wrote. ” With the challenges of the pandemic persisting and families facing higher costs across the board, now is not the time to take a step backwards – especially when the estimated cost to feed every student in Pennsylvania would be a small fraction of our overall budget. States around the country have recognized the need to take decisive action on school meals. California and Maine have both passed universal free school meal programs. Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Wisconsin, and Vermont have proposed or passed universal free-lunch bills, and Colorado will have a proposal on the ballot in November, signaling a growing recognition for this change. Given the ongoing economic challenges facing Pennsylvania families, now is the time to provide free school meals to all students who are not already covered through the federal free and reduced-price-meal and Community Eligibility Provision programs.”


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