Sen. Bernard Sanders wants more free lunches in the massive infrastructure plan Congress is writing — and this time he means it literally.
Mr. Sanders’ plan would continue to give free meals to all schoolchildren, as the federal government has been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic, even if their parents are wealthy enough to pay for the meals.
“In the richest country in the world, it is an outrage that millions of children struggle with hunger every day,” said Mr. Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “Every child deserves a quality education free of hunger.”
Mr. Sanders’ office could not say how much the proposal would cost, but offering free breakfast and lunch to the more than 56 million K-12 students in the U.S. would be a radical departure from the federal free lunch program’s original goal to make sure poor children don’t go to class hungry.
The federal government spent $18.7 billion on school meals in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic.
Mr. Sanders, joined by nine Democrats in the Senate and 26 in the House — including liberal icons Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — would go further than President Biden’s plan to spend another $15 billion to expand the free school lunch program.
Mr. Biden included the spending in his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan to increase the number of school districts that can offer free meals to all students, regardless of their income.
The Department of Agriculture could not estimate how many more schools would offer free meals to students under Mr. Biden’s plan. The number, however, would be smaller than under Mr. Sanders’ plan to offer free meals to all students.
Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, supports the idea of making sure children do not go hungry, said a spokesman for Republicans on the panel, but Mr. Sanders’ plan goes too far.
“The price tag for a massive program of this nature would be staggering,” said the spokesman, Patrick J. Creamer.
Mr. Sanders’ ambitious plan has received the support of 360 organizations, including groups representing school nutritionists and administrators, the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the country, and the American Heart Association.
Allowing all students to be eligible for free meals would make sure no child falls through the cracks, said Mr. Sanders, who pointed out that some families make just above the maximum income to qualify and will lose free school meals when the COVID-19 program ends.
If all students receive free meals, it would take away the stigma of being seen as poor, which discourages some children from participating, he said.
The American Heart Association said in a statement: “Every child deserves access to healthy meals, this bill would successfully remove barriers and ensure children are getting the nutrition they need to thrive.”
Before the pandemic, families making up to 185% of the federal poverty rate, or $49,025 a year for a family of four, qualified for school meals at reduced prices. Those making up to 130% of the poverty level, or $34,450 a year for a family of four, were eligible for free meals.
However, a 2010 law enacted by Congress also provided federal funding to feed all students free of charge at schools or school districts where at least 40% of the families with children qualified for food stamps, welfare or another federal program for the poor.
About 30% of schools eligible for federal dollars have opted not to offer free meals to all students, according to a White House fact sheet about the American Families Plan.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations temporarily made school meals free for all students during the pandemic.
Mr. Biden, voicing concern that some students who rely on the free meals will be cut off when the program ends in June 2022, encourages more schools to offer free meals to all students.
He wants to increase the federal government’s share of the cost of the free meals to get more schools and school systems to participate.
Mr. Biden also would increase the number of schools and school systems eligible to receive funding to offer free meals to all students. He would lower the threshold to qualify for the federal dollars to schools with 25% of the students eligible for anti-poverty programs.
Mr. Boozman said he is open to discussing Mr. Biden’s proposal but does not want to negotiate a deal as part of an infrastructure package that Democrats are likely to ram through the Senate without Republican support, said his spokesman, Mr. Creamer.
It’s not clear whether enough congressional Democrats support going as far as Mr. Sanders would like. Neither Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, nor House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, Georgia Democrat, co-sponsored the proposal.
Still, Ms. Stabenow wasn’t opposed to the idea. “We’ve got to make sure that free meals are available to every child. We have to figure out a way to do that,” she said in an interview.
The Sanders plan has supporters among conservatives in some school districts, including Donette Worthy, director of nutrition in the Tuscaloosa County School System in Alabama.
“I’m actually a conservative by nature,” she said. “I understand how conservatives feel about big government. I can relate to it. However, because of my job, I do see a need for free meals.”
Before school meals were temporarily made free, she said, she saw children skip eating because of the stigma of being seen as poor. “I remember being a teenager. Kids can be mean,” she said.
There are societal benefits in getting all children to eat healthier by dining in school, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutritionists nationally.
A Tufts University study released in April that analyzed the diets of about 40,000 adults and 21,000 children from 2003 to 2018 found that schools were the healthiest place to eat. Only 24% of meals consumed by children were of poor nutritional quality, the study found.
The least healthy place to eat was restaurants, where 65% of adult meals and 80% of children’s meals were of poor nutritional quality. Entertainment venues and food trucks were the next worst, with 44% of adult meals and 52% of children’s meals being poor nutritionally, according to the study.
“Schools are now the single healthiest place Americans are eating,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the university’s Friedman School of Nutrition and the study’s senior author.
He did not comment on Mr. Sanders’ proposal.
“Our results suggest substantial nutritional harms for millions of kids who have not been consistently receiving meals at school and must rely on other sources. These harms also disproportionately affect low-income, Black and Latinx children,” Mr. Mozaffarian said.
Lunch at the Tuscaloosa schools on Tuesday was herb-roasted chicken with breaded mozzarella sticks, citrus- and cinnamon-glazed carrots, green peas and fresh fruits.
Mrs. Worthy and Ms. Pratt-Heavner acknowledged that some taxpayers will think it’s unfair to buy breakfasts and lunches for children from wealthy homes.
By that logic, Ms. Pratt-Heavner said, wealthier children should not be able to go to school or take free school bus rides.
“Everything else is free in school besides the meals,” Mrs. Worthy said. “It’s not doing due diligence as taxpayers if the children are hungry and can’t concentrate in class.”