Four Things President Biden Can Do for Students’ Wellbeing
By: Mamiko Vuillemin, Senior Manager of Policy and Advocacy at FoodCorps, and Timothy Barchak, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Education Association
After a tumultuous election season, former Vice President Joe Biden is the president-elect of the United States.
In the past, Biden has vowed to invest in schools, students, and local food systems. Furthermore, Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, spent much of his four years in office undermining access to healthy food and making it harder for families to put food on the table. The first 100 days of Biden’s presidency are an opportune time for the president-elect to take steps toward ensuring all our nation’s kids have access to delicious, nutritious food at school.
Here’s what the new administration can do for kids and families.
1. Make school meals free for all students, permanently.
Just as we don’t charge for textbooks and school bus rides, we should not charge students for something as vital as food. As the Community Eligibility Provision has shown, making school meals free to all students is a simple and effective way to ensure all kids have the fuel they need to get through the school day. Universal free school meals can help destigmatize school meals, keep kids nourished and attentive while they learn, and eliminate burdensome administrative tasks for schools.
Thankfully, in response to school closures due to COVID-19, Congress has temporarily allowed schools to provide free meals through the end of the school year. Unfortunately, that won’t be enough to support a full recovery from the pandemic and a thriving school system after COVID-19. We should ensure that all kids can continue accessing school meals for free, well beyond the pandemic and the period of economic strife it has caused.
2. Protect access to healthy food for kids and families.
Due to pandemic-driven school closures and economic downturn, about 14 million children are not getting enough to eat. Furthermore, the impacts of systemic racism mean there is a huge racial disparity in hunger rates. According to a June report from the Brookings Institution, about three in ten Black households with children and one in four Hispanic households with children lacked sufficient food in the months after the pandemic began, while the rate is under 1 in 10 for white households with children.
The Biden administration can work with the new Congress to pass an urgent relief package that includes strengthened SNAP benefits. Reports abound of long lines at food banks and families struggling to make ends meet. Congress must boost SNAP benefits to help ensure families can get food on the table. (Strengthening SNAP benefits has the added boost of stimulating local economies as families spend more at local grocery stores.) Kids who are hungry cannot learn. We must make sure they have the food they need at home to thrive at school, whether virtually or in person.
Finally, the Trump administration issued rules to limit access to SNAP and school meals, undermined science-based nutrition standards in school meals, and stymied immigrants’ abilities to access important benefit programs. The incoming Biden administration must halt any of these rules that are still underway and work to reverse those that have been finalized.
3. Resource school nutrition departments and leaders.
School nutrition professionals take on the essential duty of feeding our nation’s kids every day. Yet a survey from the School Nutrition Association found that school meal programs are facing huge financial shortfalls, given the pandemic’s impact on participation rates and expenses. School meal programs need additional funding to pay for increased pandemic-related expenses, as well as to cover the fixed costs of running school meal programs despite lower participation rates.
We must also invest in school meal infrastructure and staffing by giving schools and districts the support they need to convert to scratch cooking, pay staff a living wage, and invest in professional development and resources for the people who feed our children. The Biden administration should urge Congress to support school nutrition programs during and beyond the pandemic.
Finally, the new administration has an opportunity to leverage school meals programs as a tool for climate resilience and economic development. Legislators can do this by incentivizing farm to school purchasing and opening the school meal market to smaller, minority-led, locally based food businesses.
4. Ensure community representation in political appointees.
When a new presidential administration starts, it employs new personnel across all levels, from secretaries to senior policy advisors. The Biden administration is beginning to appoint officials who are reflective of our nation’s racial and ethnic diversity, prioritizing people of color and people from low-income communities, and should continue to do so in the fields of agriculture and education. Community representatives are often the best champions for food justice and food security in schools.
The administration should also establish a chief equity officer in every agency. It is well past time that the federal government ensures its actions further equity and inclusion and reflect the diversity of this country. A chief equity officer and their team will embed and integrate an equity-driven perspective into staffing, policy, and management decisions across the federal government, ensuring that equity is at the forefront of decisions that impact all Americans.
The first 100 days of a presidency set the standard for what’s to come. The Biden administration can use that time to invest in schools, students, and food systems, ensuring kids and families will thrive well beyond the pandemic.
Together with communities, FoodCorps connects kids to healthy food in school so that every child—regardless of race, place, or class—gets the nourishment they need to thrive. The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees.