Students will be able to pick up free meals through the next school year, thanks to a new policy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The department is extending universal free lunch through the 2021-2022 school year. It's all part of an effort to reduce food insecurity in America, where up to 12 million children currently live in households where they might not have enough to eat.

"USDA will remain relentless in ensuring our nation's children get the critical nutrition they need," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "States and districts wanted waivers extended to plan for safe reopening in the fall. USDA answered the call to help America's schools and childcare institutions serve high quality meals while being responsive to their local needs as children safely return to their regular routines. This action also increases the reimbursement rate to school meal operators so they can serve healthy foods to our kids. It's a win-win for kids, parents and schools."

At the start of the pandemic, the USDA implemented child nutrition program waivers to help all children eat free—regardless of their parents' income or educational setting. Additionally, parents and guardians were able to pick up meals for their kids, even in bulk orders, to cover multiple days of feeding their families. The waivers were set to expire on September 30th, though, leaving many families wondering how they would continue to feed their children during the ongoing pandemic.

"Students' success in the classroom goes hand in hand with their ability to access basic needs like healthy and nutritious meals," said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. "It's critical that our efforts to reopen schools quickly and safely include programs that provide access to free, healthy meals for our most vulnerable students, particularly those whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic. This program will ensure more students, regardless of their educational setting, can access free, healthy meals as more schools reopen their doors for in-person learning."

Earlier this year, the USDA made it possible for the free breakfast and lunch program to continue even during the summer months, when many schools are not in session.

The meals will be distributed through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO), or the "summer meal programs," at no cost. Pick-up sites will vary based on region but can include schools, parks, community centers, libraries, churches and more.

It's a great program and one that many organizations would like to see be made permanent.

The non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) has called on Congress to expand the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs to provide universal, free meals across the country.

SNA, which represents more than 50,000 school nutrition administrators nationwide, argues that free meals support learning and improve classroom attendance and behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics joined with over 60 other organizations in a December 2020 letter to urge the incoming Biden administration to establish universal school meals.

In 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act to help provide free meals to American families.

"In the richest country in history of the world, when the top 1 percent are making more than they ever have before, it is simply outrageous that 1 in 5 children will go hungry this year," said Senator Sanders at the time.

Several states have enacted their own universal food programs for students. In a recent analysis of those existing programs, scholars with The Brookings Institute found that schoolwide free meals improved math performance in districts where relatively few students had previously qualified for free meals. They also found that the program significantly reduced suspensions among white male elementary students.

"Taken together, these results suggest that free school meals, in addition to providing nutritional benefits, can improve students' academics and discipline," wrote Krista Ruffini.

"Even during the pandemic crisis, when students are not receiving in-person instruction, there is reason to believe schoolwide free-meals programs may still help students."

Now more than ever, we need to do everything we can to support our students. And that starts with making sure they're getting enough to eat.