LIKE MANY PARENTS in Massachusetts, Rebecca Wood was getting by on a tight budget that left her struggling with school meal debt, among other costs, well before the pandemic hit. The mother of an 8-year-old child, Rebecca describes her situation as feeling like she’s in a boat with a small hole in it.
Then came the free school meals to which her daughter gained access when waivers from the federal government were granted in response to the COVID crisis. These waivers allowed thousands more Massachusetts children and teens to get free breakfast and lunch at hundreds of sites across the Commonwealth. For Rebecca, this was exactly the kind of help that made a real difference. As she puts it, “Free school meals gave me breathing room. I now have more money for my daughter’s clothing or the electric bill.”
For the past 10 months, expanded access to school meals has helped mitigate traditional barriers to participation in federally reimbursed child nutrition programs. Given that kids from households with low-incomes may receive nearly 50 percent of their daily calories from school meals, and that 27 percent of students living in a food insecure household in Massachusetts are above the eligibility level for free or reduced-price meals, this expansion of programs not only made a real difference to household budgets, as Rebecca attests, it also made a real impact on childhood hunger. These meals have proven to be a vital resource to families struggling to afford enough to eat.
Recognizing the centrality of school meals for childhood nutrition, and building on this moment of expanded access, the state’s leading anti-hunger organization, Project Bread and the Feed Kids coalition, is pushing for legislation to enable “School Meals for All” in partnership with the faith community, anti-hunger partners, health care providers, school and municipal officials, food systems experts, business leaders, children’s advocates, and others.
School Meals for All, or universal school meals, would allow every student who wants or needs a school breakfast or lunch to receive it – at no cost to their family and with no requirement to sign up or provide income or other information. Just as no student is required to pay fees at public schools when they enter the classroom, see the school nurse, or take a book from the library, there would be no financial barrier in the school cafeteria.
Removing this financial barrier is key to addressing the two main impediments to student participation in school meals – cost and stigma. Since its inception after World War II, the National School Lunch Program has created tiers of payment and sorted children into these categories. Because families are required to pay different amounts, school meals have a reputation of being primarily for the kids from poor households whose caretakers may not have the time or funds to pack meals from home.
Just over 5 percent of students paying full price eat both school breakfast and lunch, daily. That means, unfortunately, school meals carry with them the label of being “poor;” a label that brings fear of stigma for far too many children and can be enough to lead some to skip meals despite the need. Districts that have utilized federal programs to provide school meals for all, including Boston, Chelsea, Everett and Haverhill Public Schools, have seen higher program participation by addressing barriers of stigma and cost when every child has greater access to school meals. School Meals for All legislation would increase participation in school meals by an estimated 50,000 students statewide.
Establishing School Meals for All would also address the long-term costs that could come from returning to the status quo when this crisis subsides. In 2016, the Greater Boston Food Bank and Children’s HealthWatch estimated the cost of food insecurity in the Commonwealth to be $2.4 billion annually, with much of the costs attributed directly to childhood health problems and the need for special education. School meals also provide real life learning to help students develop healthy habits that allow for healthier adults, further reducing the financial impact of hunger. Research has also proven what we know to be true: a hungry student cannot learn.
Most importantly, however, is the simple fact that our priority in Massachusetts must be to feed our kids, and School Meals for All will do that. Massachusetts has been a national leader in education on so many fronts throughout our history, and now more than ever we need to lead the nation in providing School Meals for All. Every child and every community are better off when all students are nourished and ready to learn.
Chelsea Public Schools currently serves free meals to all students. As Superintedent Almudena Abeyta notes, “In Chelsea, we’ve seen firsthand the benefits of all students having access to school meals. We see a difference in how students learn, interact, and thrive in and out of the classroom with access to these meals. School meals for all is a crucial tool in helping set our students up for success.”
We cannot let this opportunity to invest in the health and future of our children pass us by. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, too many in our Commonwealth were struggling to meet their most basic needs. Today, the COVID crisis has shed a stark light on the state of hunger in Massachusetts, especially for kids. We have a moral responsibility to take immediate action to end childhood hunger in Massachusetts, and we simply cannot do so without providing school meals to every child, free of charge and free of stigma.
Project Bread invites all who support this effort to go to feedkidsma.org to let your legislators know you care about providing school meals for all students by asking them to make it a priority this session. Any resident of Massachusetts who needs help accessing food can go to projectbread.org/get-help to find a variety of resources, or call Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline for free, confidential assistance from informed nutrition counselors in any language at 800-645-8333.
Erin McAleer is the CEO of Project Bread, Sal DiDomenico is the state senator from Everett, and Andy Vargas is the state representative from Haverhill.