As an educator, I was able to see how children performed, interacted and even ate when they were inside the walls of their school. But the bigger picture outside the classroom, particularly when it comes to food, shows the key role schools must play in feeding their students. Affordable and accessible food for children is absolutely critical — and it’s a matter of justice. And while legislative progress is being made, it’s at risk of losing momentum.

During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced a meal waiver program in order to provide food to any student who needed it. The waivers, which reimburse schools for the meals they serve, have been a lifeline for families and school nutrition departments alike. These waivers allowed for every student to receive a free breakfast and lunch at school, regardless of family income. Without the bureaucratic red tape of charging kids for meals, school nutrition leaders were able to direct more time and money to sourcing nourishing, local ingredients for breakfasts and lunches.

However, these waivers are set to expire June 30. Eliminating this invaluable resource would be a critical mistake. Last month, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a bipartisan Support Kids Not Red Tape Act to keep the program alive until September 2023. Now, Congress must pass this bill and keep up the work that has impacted the daily lives of so many children, like the eighth grader I saw that day in the store.

Black and brown families disproportionately carry the burden of food, housing, health and income insecurities due to systemic racism and poverty, two of the evils of society condemned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during a 1967 talk at The Hungry Club Forum in Atlanta.

Hungry kids — no matter their socioeconomic background — simply can’t learn. Research links hunger in kids to greater absenteeism, lower grades and an inability to focus. And the situation for students in rural counties is even worse when even a local corner store is hard to find.

In pre-pandemic times, nearly 77% of the 30 million children eating school lunches received free and reduced-price meals. The majority of them came from families of color. If the current school meal waivers expire, these disparities are likely to worsen, deepening inequalities across racial, economic and geographic lines. Systems that make food access dependent on socioeconomic status favor wealthy, white families over all others. And schools that highlight families’ income levels in their nutrition programs create a stigma for students.

Read the full article about how schools feed children by Robert S. Harvey at The 74.