BOSTON — After agreeing last summer to a $110 million one-year extension of a pandemic-era program, lawmakers, advocates and families are calling for the state to make school meals free for all Massachusetts students permanently.
Supporters of the policy gathered in a State House hearing room Thursday to promote the benefits of a program that they say ensures students have the nourishment they need to learn, while taking pressure off families.
New legislation filed by Rep. Andres Vargas of Haverhill and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett would allow every Massachusetts student to receive free breakfast or lunch in school without providing income or other eligibility information.
The pursuit of a permanent policy guaranteeing free meals for all students is prompted by the lapse of the national pandemic-era assistance program that guaranteed free school meals for nearly 30 million students.
Former Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers agreed in July to a one-year extension of free school meals for all students to the tune of $110 million in the state budget, which campaign organizers said makes Massachusetts one of five states continuing to offer no-cost meals to all students after the expiration of federal waivers in June.
DiDomenico said Thursday that the state would need to continue its commitment of $110 million — if not more — to continue the program.
“Obviously, you know, everything goes up year by year, so it’ll be a little more, but that is the baseline,” DiDomenico said.
The bill calls for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to fill in the gaps of uncovered costs from federal programs, while encouraging schools to “maximize” access to federal funds.
It encourages districts to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision — a federal program that provides free breakfast and lunch for low-income students without collecting household applications. Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed based on the percentage of students who participate in other social welfare programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Project Bread President Erin McAleer said Thursday that there are 56,000 more children eating lunch daily in Massachusetts schools today than there were in 2019, before the federal universal free meal policy began.
Vargas said that prior to the universal program, more than a quarter of food insecure students in Massachusetts did not qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Others who may have qualified did not apply to the program due to stigma or other obstacles, he said.
Stigma prevented McAleer from getting food she needed as a child, the Project Bread president said Thursday. She went from living in a middle class home in West Peabody to facing food insecurity when her mother, dealing with domestic violence, decided to seek a divorce and became a single parent “overnight,” she said.
“No one knew about the violence that she faced or the financial difficulties before her.
“That was intentional. She didn’t want anyone questioning the decision that she had made,” McAleer said. “She could have walked into my school, the Burke Elementary School in West Peabody, and asked for an application for free lunch. But she didn’t.
“She was worried about stigma.”
“Making universal school meals permanent ensures that no matter what home a child is coming from, they will be fed two nutritious meals every day without fear or stigma,” Vargas said. “Furthermore, universal school meals is a financial break for families providing upwards of $1,200 per child per year.”
Advocates said Thursday that nutritious meals ensure students are present and ready to learn in the classroom.
“We know that when kids are hungry at school they cannot learn,” Vargas said.
“We know that hungry kids have problems concentrating, have lower academic achievement, suffer cognitive development impairments and exhibit more behavioral problems in their food secure peers,” Vargas said.
Maine, California and Colorado have all made universal school meals permanent.