Supporters of Universal School Meals: Don't Stop Now
Thursday, January 27, 2022
This summer, a key initiative to boost school meal access during the pandemic will expire. In North Dakota, those working at the community level say a return to status quo is not the way to go.
In June, the federal government will no longer provide free meals to all school students the way it has during the pandemic. Barring any action, many schools will return to offering free and reduced-price meals to students who qualify.
Hamida Dakane, community organizer for the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party, said many of the new American families she works with already face challenges in accessing these programs because of language barriers. For those who have come to rely on them, it removes a financial burden.
"People who are working with minimum wage, a single parent," Dakane explained. "If the money they were supposed to cover with this school food, now they can cover with their rent, electricity and internet."
Supporters argued establishing universal free meals permanently gives families certainty, especially when there is a sudden loss of income.
There have been federal proposals for permanent extensions, and the Biden administration offered more support in the recent Build Back Better plan. It has also been floated in states like North Dakota and Minnesota. Opponents generally cite cost concerns in providing the option for households not currently in need.
Supporters countered the approach removes major administrative burdens for school districts, while erasing stigma.
Barry Nelson, interim director of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, said it comes down to ensuring a basic, fundamental need for all school children.
"Children have to declare themselves as falling below a certain economic guideline, and that kind of visibility is part of the reason there's a barrier," Nelson asserted.
Other advocates said even though North Dakota's economy was not as affected by the pandemic as much as other states, keeping free meals in place will help families still struggling recover. Prior to the crisis, roughly 30,000 North Dakota students were receiving free and reduced-price school meals.
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