Against all odds, Meighen Lovelace pulled off a feat that’s sure to impress any parent: convincing her teenage girls to love broccoli.

For Lovelace, a single mother of two in Eagle County, Colorado, it was an uphill battle spanning decades. Through mornings of gardening at home, afternoons of hand chopping and evenings of baking homemade pizza, her daughters have come to love fresh vegetables. And even as budgets have tightened during the pandemic — Lovelace said she was laid off from her job waiting on black-tie banquet tables at a Vail ski resort when the lifts closed — she was counting on school meals to make sure her daughters stayed fed and satisfied.

But with universal free meal programs expiring in June, Lovelace fears what the future holds. If that happens, she expects her grocery budget to double, something her current job at a barbecue food truck will struggle to sustain. She plans to rely on food banks to make sure there is enough for everyone.

“It’s not forever but it’s now,” Lovelace said, “without school [meals]I don’t really know what it’s going to look like right now.”

Lovelace and her family are not alone.

In a movement that took the defenders by surpriseuniversal free school lunch programs, originally introduced in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, were not included in the $1.5 trillion spending bill passed by the Senate Thursday night.

If the programs are due to expire in June, about 10 million children will lose access to free school meals, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) told ABC News. And for families like Lovelace’s, losing school meals is not easy to replace. They are often the healthiest and most consistent source of sustenance for children in families under financial stress.

The effects also go beyond rumbling bellies. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the long-term consequences of hunger include lower academic performance, behavioral problems and chronic diseases like diabetes, already endemic among American children.

That’s why it’s so important to have school meals as a buffer against food insecurity, Robert Harvey, president of FoodCorps, a nonprofit that supports healthy meals for more than 150,000, told ABC News. students each year.

Food insecurity, which The USDA defines as “limited or uncertain access to adequate nutrition” – plagued more than 11 million American children before the pandemic. “Adequate food” refers to the difference between a lunch with fruits, vegetables and milk and one with fries and a soda, Harvey said. These numbers have only gotten worse during the pandemic: recent studies indicate that millions more children are at risk of going hungry every day.

The numbers only reinforce the importance of schools as sanctuaries for consistent, healthy eating habits, Harvey said.

Especially for families close to the poverty line, not having “to think about providing five breakfasts, five lunches, a snack and a drink”, he said, which makes school meals “one of the ways to reduce stress, anxiety, financially liberating benefits of public education in this country.”

Another issue with Universal Meals expiring? Stigma.

After the program expires, families will still be able to request discounted meals for their children, Robin Cogan, a school nurse in Camden, New Jersey, told ABC News. But many parents may be reluctant to apply. For example, for those whose citizenship status is unsettled — like many Honduran and Guatemalan families in his majority-minority district — “there is a distrust of any system of government,” Cogan said. “They really don’t want to leave any trace of who they are because they’re afraid of being arrested.”

Children may also fear using cut-price meals that are often a scarlet letter, Ben Atkinson, nutrition services coordinator for the Auburn School District in Washington, told ABC News.

“Children aren’t stupid,” he said. “They know who gets a free lunch, who pays cash, [and] who can afford to buy an extra bag of crisps from the vending machine.”

It all matters because ultimately, Cogan said, hunger isn’t just about feeling full. According to American Academy of Pediatrics“multiple adverse health effects [are] strongly correlated with food insecurity,” including brain function — which can lead to poorer school performance, mental illness and/or behavioral problems — and chronic conditions like diabetes that already afflict hundreds of thousands of American children.

Lovelace fears these challenges for her daughters if Congress does not renew universal school meals.

Democrats said they are still pushing to extend the program, at least through the 2022-23 school year. But the extent to which the Biden administration is on board for the estimated $11 billion program remains unclear.

According to a congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the administration requested an extension of the USDA program last January. But the ministry declined to answer questions about the request. Now that the spending bill has come and gone, advocates hope school lunch extensions will be added to other legislation, like a COVID spending bill that President Joe Biden wants.

In the meantime, parents like Lovelace watch nervously from the sidelines. “Access to food is sacred,” she said, “let’s not fight for it, let’s just feed our children.”

“That’s the one thing Congress shouldn’t be bickering over.”

ABC News’ Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.