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As low-income families lose extra financial assistance that was granted during the pandemic, the Oklahoma Legislature is considering a proposal to expand free meals to more public school students.
The Oklahoma Senate is considering a bill that would expand free meals to public school children through House Bill 1376. Authored by Republican state Rep. Jeff Boatman, who represents Bixby and Tulsa, HB 1376 would raise the eligibility for families receiving free meals to 250% of the federal poverty line. That means a family of four could earn $75,000 and still be eligible for free school meals.
Chris Bernard is CEO of Hunger Free Oklahoma, an organization that works to ensure all people have access to affordable, nutritious meals.
“Many of these families lost SNAP and free lunch. I think you’re gonna see people in very desperate situations,” Bernard told The Black Wall Street Times.
“Kids who have access to school breakfast and lunch have less behavior problems, better math and reading scores, and are more likely to graduate.”
Oklahoma currently ranks near the bottom of all U.S. states in education outcomes. Less than a third of Oklahoma students are proficient in reading and math, according to data from the State Department of Education.
During the beginning months of the pandemic, Congress approved and Biden signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in 2020. Among other things, it granted additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to low-income families for groceries.
With Biden now declaring an end to the pandemic, states like Oklahoma lost access to the extra federal support for the program. As of March 1, benefits to families were reduced to pre-pandemic levels, despite the fact that inflation and other financial burdens continue to impact them.
In recent weeks, the state of Minnesota passed universal school meals for public school students, but Oklahoma isn’t willing to go that far.
“All we’re doing with this bill is trying to smooth out that cliff a little bit and make sure the persons suffering are not kids in schools, trying to go to school hungry,” Boatman previously told KOCO.
Free meals for students would be “a wise move”
While Oklahoma is a state that relies heavily on charitable organizations to support low-income families, Bernard says these organizations were already under incredible strain before the extra benefits ended.
“They can’t fill that gap. They were already serving more than they ever have,” Bernard said.
Since SNAP is completely funded at the federal level, Oklahoma can’t extend the extra benefits. Legislators have taken action in another way, however.
HB 1376 passed the Oklahoma House 91-7 on March 21, sending it to the state Senate for consideration. It would require schools to offer free lunch to an expanded pool of eligible students for the next two years.
“We shouldn’t be relying on states to do this, but until the feds act on it, I think it would be a wise move for the Oklahoma Legislature to do it at a time when we’re trying to improve our educational outcomes,” Bernard told The Black Wall Street Times.
If passed, the bill would become law on July 1, 2023. To learn about current resources for low-income families, visit the Hunger Free Oklahoma website.