Dylan Borrelli, left, and Jessica Rojas, both juniors, have their...

Dylan Borrelli, left, and Jessica Rojas, both juniors, have their school lunch at Southampton High School on May 18. Credit: Randee Daddona

While several members of Congress appear to have come to a bipartisan agreement to extend through the summer a federal pandemic response program that has allowed school districts to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, the deal doesn't go far enough. There's a lot more to do to determine how we should feed our schoolchildren.

The deal would provide free meals through the summer for students from pre-K through 12th grade, regardless of income, and add extra funds into the next school year to meet expected price increases. But by fall, the program would become more limited, leaving only some needy children able to get free and reduced meals.

But the need for food, the extraordinary circumstances that led to the pandemic changes, and the new urgency associated with inflation won't automatically cease with summer's end. About 800,000 students statewide would be affected if the program expires.

The pandemic-time waiver of earlier guidelines, including income qualifications, will expire if Congress doesn't turn the tentative agreement into reality in less than two weeks. At a minimum, that extension has to happen. But a further extension to cover the 2022-2023 school year would be better. Then, the harder work has to start. Local, state and federal officials must consider all options for a permanent nutrition program, whom it should serve, and how.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer helped broker the current deal, and he'll need to continue his focus on getting it done and finding a more permanent solution. Hunger shouldn't be a partisan issue; feeding children should have support from both sides of the aisle.

At the outset of COVID-19, the U.S. Department of Agriculture waived income qualifications that governed which children can receive free or reduced-cost lunch and eased restrictions for school districts on meal distribution. These income levels to qualify for free lunch are too low — $51,338 for a New York family of four. If the extension expires, few school districts would be able to provide meals to all students. Allowing all to get meals also avoids the stigma that can accompany students who do qualify for free meals as they often are set apart on a school lunch line from those who pay.

Some advocates are pushing for a permanent universal school lunch program. In New York, that could cost about $200 million a year. It's worth a careful look, but all solutions are worth considering. Lawmakers and advocates must use the time an extension buys to figure out how we should feed our children going forward.

Children who are well fed are better able to learn, retain information and participate in the classroom. A healthy breakfast and lunch are critical. Just as we care about what our children are doing inside the classroom, we must be sure they're getting what they need outside of the classroom, too.

That can start with a good meal.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.