The pandemic has made it possible for more Iowa school kids than ever to receive free breakfast and lunch through their school, through a federal program that provided vouchers.

Universal free meals will soon be ending, though, as the voucher program is set to expire on June 30. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, districts have been able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 kids since March 2020, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began reimbursing them. Nutrition service directors at Iowa schools are concerned about the end of the program as it has been beneficial in a variety of ways.

Ginny Scott of College Community Schools said:

Research shows students eat their healthiest meals at school. School meal programs need Congress’ full support to overcome pandemic-related challenges and ensure students continue to receive nutritious school meals to support learning and combat child hunger

Before the pandemic, Iowa students' participation in school breakfast offerings was the lowest in the country. The free program has increased that by 50 percent and has also removed the "stigma", says Scott, of those using the already existing National School Lunch Program to offer free or reduced meals to low-income students.

The universal free meal program has also eliminated the need for school nutritionists to act as "debt collectors", said Scott. Red tape and paperwork are gone because everyone qualifies.

Finally, it's good for the schools. The more kids taking free meals, the more the school gets reimbursed. Since 2018, all schools were required to give free meals to students who wanted them, but if families didn't pay, the school had to eat the cost. The current free voucher program has eliminated that.

If the program is allowed to expire, you can probably guess two of the things they are going to chalk it up to: supply chain issues and inflation. While former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack heads the USDA and operates the free lunch program, an Iowa Public Radio story says his hands are tied, and his department cannot renew the program without approval from Congress.

Over 95 million children could lose their access to free meals this summer alone if the program isn't renewed.

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