Nebraska legislative panel hears opinions on bill to give every student free meal

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha wants free meals back in public schools under a legislative bill called the Hunger Free Schools Act.

The Community Eligibility Provision Act allowed students free breakfast and lunch during the height of the pandemic.

Since it expired, food security advocates have come out in droves, touting the need for student access to meals.

In Nebraska, 42% of Lincoln high school students use the free or reduced-lunch program, while 48% of middle schoolers participate. Elementary-age kids come in at half, with 50% of them relying on schools for a meal.

Voices For Children representative and teacher Amahi Salazar says when children didn’t have to worry about paying for lunch, it was noticeable in school.

“When the community eligibility provision went into effect where I was working, you could feel the shift in school cafeteria culture,” Salazar said Monday in a legislative hearing. “No one was worried about when they were going through the lunch line. Kids were able to be kids; they grabbed their treys and were able to eat a meal with their peers. I never had to hand out another paper that told them that they owed money.”

Lincoln East High School student Jennifer Solano is one of the thousands of students who was relieved from embarrassment when universal free meals were in effect.

She says everyone knows when you are a part of the program, and many agree that that can lead to shame and bullying.

“If you have more than what the program can cover, they’ll take away your lunch tray, and you can’t eat lunch,” Jennifer said. “Or if you don’t have enough of certain foods, and you have to get a certain number of fruits and vegetables to meet the protocol, they also make in known.”

Those opposing the bill say it needs a few amendments before it should move forward.

Scott Thomas of nonprofit Village In Progress said the bill shouldn’t “pick and choose” between public and private school students.

“The state should show an equal interest in the proper nutrition of all school-age students, and I see no mention in here for provision for private schools. only public,” he said.

Cavanaugh said that she is not opposed to including private schools but that the state doesn’t have authority over them, so coming up with language to include them would be difficult.

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