The USDA school nutrition programs, like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, are crucial to ensuring that kids have access to consistent, nutritious meals throughout the school year. With over 1 in 6 Kentucky kids not having enough to eat and research finding that school meals are some of the healthiest meals students consume, these programs are vital for the health and nutrition of Kentucky kids. 

Despite how vital these programs are, we know that there are barriers to Kentucky kids accessing regular, healthy meals. Thankfully, there are big opportunities for advocates and policymakers to make some major wins for the food and nutrition security of Kentucky’s kids. 

Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture proposed new nutrition guidelines for school meals. These guidelines would make school meals healthier for kids, establish guidelines to limit added sugars and sodium, offer more whole-grains in school meals, and make it easier for schools to purchase locally grown foods. With up to 50% of the calories consumed by kids a day being at school, USDA has a huge opportunity to increase the nutritional quality of kids’ diets. 

These proposed guidelines are now in a comment period, and advocates can submit comments in support until May 10, 2023. Our partners at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have created model comments and outreach materials for advocates to use to make their own comments — the model comments and outreach toolkit can be found here, and advocates can read the proposed guidelines and submit comments here.   

These updated guidelines will go a long way to ensure Kentucky kids have the nutrition they need to thrive, and we strongly encourage USDA to implement them.

While the USDA adopting these guidelines would be a major boost for kids, we know there are barriers to receiving school meals that Congress also urgently needs to address. One of the biggest barriers for kids is the lack of access to free school meals. 

Congressman Morgan McGarvey (KY-03) recently introduced the School Meals Expansion Act (H.R. 2567), which would address this barrier by expanding access to free school meals through the Community Eligibility Provision. The Community Eligibility Provision currently allows schools to offer free meals to all students if 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced school meals, SNAP, and other government programs. The proposed federal legislation would lower that threshold to 25 percent as well as allow states to universally opt in.     

With food prices rising 10% this past year, expanding access to free school meals ensures that all Kentucky kids have at least two meals a day and gives families a much-needed break from inflation. Expanding the Community Eligibility Provision is also a win for school districts, allowing them to focus on feeding and educating students rather than tracking down paperwork and intricate reporting requirements. 

As Kentuckians struggle to cope with inflation, kids and families are counting on policymakers to deliver some relief. The USDA strengthening school nutrition standards and Congress passing Representative McGarvey’s bill would be the major win that kids need.