Coronavirus-relief bill aims to expand free school lunch program

The bill would expand the SNAP program to feed kids while schools are closed.

March 12, 2020, 7:58 PM

With coronavirus-related school closures looming, federal lawmakers have proposed a bill that includes help for families that are struggling to feed their kids while at home.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, presented to the House on Wednesday, includes a provision for expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that provides money for low-income families to purchase healthy food. The proposal is one of at least eight provisions up for consideration by the Senate.

Any time schools are closed, whether it's for holidays, the summer or now with the global pandemic, many families struggle to afford additional food and childcare, a spokeswoman with Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, told ABC News on Thursday.

PHOTO: School cafeteria.
School cafeteria.
Getty Images

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 11.2 million children are already classified as "food insecure" -- i.e., they live in a household that may trade-off paying for important items for other necessities -- and either receive free or discounted meals at school.

The provision included in the legislation proposed Wednesday seeks to provide additional emergency funds for "households with children who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals if not for their schools being closed due to the COVID-19 emergency."

"In order to be eligible, the child’s school must be closed for no less than five consecutive days," according to the eight-page summary of bill released by House Democrats.

"The provisions in this bill for feeding programs like CR-SNAP will help make sure kids, the elderly, and the working poor have the opportunity to get the food they need in the event of a sustained disruption to their normal routines,” said Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), one of the bill's sponsors.

"This legislation focuses directly on providing support to America’s families, who must be our first priority in this emergency," Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.

If the bill passes, the funds will come from a $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus spending package proposed earlier this month.

As of Thursday morning, 2,100 schools have been closed or are scheduled to close across the country, affecting 1,309,426 students, according to Education Week.

In preparation for possible school closures, three teachers in Arlington, Virginia, started raising funds online to give $100 grocery gift cards to each of the approximately 8,300 students in their school district who receive free or reduced lunches.

PHOTO: Cafeteria workers serving food to school children.
STOCK PHOTO: Cafeteria workers serving food to school children.
Stock photo/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced on Tuesday that the USDA was extending its food service program to make it easier for states to serve free meals to low-income children affected by school closures, and that the department "stands ready to provide additional assistance to areas impacted by the coronavirus as part of the much larger government-wide response."

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio said on ABC News Live on Thursday that the coronavirus relief bill needs to get passed for the children -- "the most vulnerable people in the world."

"There's disaster relief and disaster aid that loosens restrictions so that more people can receive SNAP, but there is no mechanism to increase the amount of dollars -- the dollars needed to offset breakfast," Colicchio said.

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