More than 80% of students in America’s public school systems have disabilities, including learning disabilities, according to the latest data from the American Psychological Association.
“A lot of people have heard the news that the Affordable Care Act is going to bring back the school lunch program,” said Barbara Stoddard, executive director of the National School Boards Association.
“That was the first thing I thought about when I heard about the repeal.”
The ACA provided $1.3 billion to expand the nutrition program in public schools.
That money is meant to help low-income students in low-performing schools who don’t have the means to eat.
The program expanded to about a dozen schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio in 2017.
It now serves about 4,000 students in about 200 schools.
States across the country are looking to expand their school lunch programs to include more students with learning disabilities.
In North Carolina, where a new law is in effect, the number of students with special needs is expected to jump to more than 4,700 students by 2021.
The new law requires that schools offer free lunches to students with physical or developmental disabilities, but it doesn’t provide enough money for those students.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s largest school district, officials are considering whether to extend free lunchons to students in special education.
“We are talking about thousands of students who are getting food,” said Jennifer Hickey, a spokeswoman for the Harrisburg district.
Stoddard said the federal government should do more to expand funding for special needs students.
About 5% of Americans live with a learning disability, according the National Institute of Mental Health.
About 30% of people with a disability live in poverty.
For students with developmental disabilities or disabilities related to hearing loss, it is difficult to find the proper food, which can cause stress and lead to weight gain, said Elizabeth Hockley, a senior policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
People with disabilities need to be able to eat the right food, Hockney said.
Some states have tried to expand eligibility requirements for special education students.
The federal government recently announced that it would waive eligibility requirements in Pennsylvania for students with autism, dyslexia, hearing or visual impairment.
This fall, more than 300,000 families across the United States will have access to free luncheons, which are a crucial tool for students who need help with school work.
A bill to expand access to school lunches in the House passed the House Ways and Means Committee last week.
The bill would allow schools to serve all students with a “mental or physical disability.”
The bill would require the government to provide free lunched meals to students who meet certain criteria, including students with severe developmental disabilities and students who have a learning impairment.
In addition, schools would be required to have a “reasonable access to meals plan” that is consistent with federal law and states’ laws.
Hockley said schools have not yet decided whether to expand school lunch access to students at risk of physical or cognitive disabilities.