U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., chairs a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry subcommittee hearing to examine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other nutrition assistance programs. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) has introduced legislation, along with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) that would cancel school lunch debt nationwide. The bill would apply to all “debt,” incurred under the National School Lunch Program, which operates at public and nonprofit private schools.
“‘School lunch debt’ is a term so absurd that it shouldn’t even exist. That’s why I’m proud to introduce this bill to cancel the nation’s student meal debt and stop humiliating kids and penalizing hunger,” Fetterman said in a statement. “It’s time to come together and stop playing political games with Americans’ access to food. September is Hunger Action Month and I’m proud to be introducing this bill to help working families now, while we work to move our other priorities to combat food insecurity in our nation.”
Under the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidizes school meals for low-income students; some children receive free meals, some receive reduced-price meals. Schools are reimbursed for the meals, provided they meet federal nutrition standards, and incorporate foods grown in the U.S. The programs served some 30 million lunches and 16 million breakfasts to students in 2019.
In 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government made lunch free for every public school student, but the program was sunsetted in 2022. Many states have since added their own universal free school meals programs. That includes Pennsylvania, which added $46.5 million to the 2023-24 budget for a free breakfast program for all public school students. “Universal free breakfast puts every kid on the same playing field, gives every kid that opportunity to succeed,” Gov. Josh Shapiro said last month, touting the program.
Fetterman said the national public school meal debt is $262 million a year, and in Pennsylvania that debt amounts to nearly $80 million, he said. This “debt” happens when a child can’t afford to pay for their meal at school but receives a meal anyway, with the amount owed added to the child’s tab. The legislation, titled the School Lunch Debt Cancellation Act, would direct the USDA to pay all debts owed to schools for lunch or breakfast programs.
Fetterman said as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research, fighting food insecurity is one of his priorities. In June, he was one of four Democrats to vote against the debt limit bill because it included restrictions to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
“I did not agree to these SNAP restrictions, and I won’t give Republicans an opening to try and take food from more food insecure Americans in Farm Bill negotiations later this year,” Fetterman said at the time.
He introduced legislation to provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student, and in July, introduced a bill that would make striking workers eligible for SNAP benefits. Under current federal law, workers on strike have to have qualified for SNAP’s income requirements before going on strike.
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