PRIOR TO THE PANDEMIC, more than 120,000 children in Massachusetts didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. Since COVID-19 arrived in the US, food insecurity rates in our state have doubled as families have faced increased financial hurdles from job loss to inflation.

Although our food insecurity statistics are staggering, there is a clear way to help end childhood hunger: by continuing to offer school meals at no charge for every student.

In 2020, Congress gave USDA authority to issue child nutrition waivers, which permitted districts to serve meals to all students at no cost, also known as universal school meals. Having access to free meals at school helps alleviate the burden for so many of our neighbors who are facing food insecurity.

But families stand to lose that access to school meals free of charge very soon when federally funded universal school meals expire on June 30. That is why the Feed Kids coalition, led by Project Bread, is urgently advocating for action at the state level. If Congress won’t pass universal school meals, it’s time for Massachusetts policymakers to take action and continue to offer them to our children. The Massachusetts House of Representatives’ budget proposal currently includes funding for school meals for an additional year.

Our state spends $2.4 billion every year combating the negative impacts of food insecurity. These include mental health issues, diabetes, obesity, and impaired cognitive development in children. These expenses are avoidable. School meal programs generate more than twice the return on investment, providing nearly $40 billion in health and economic benefits nationwide. Funding universal school meals in Massachusetts for one year would cost an estimated $110 million – generating an estimated $220 million return on investment.

Allowing universal school meals to expire would be devastating for Massachusetts’ schools, students, families, and economy. Children get up to half of their daily calories at school and, for many children, schools are the only consistent source of nutritious food; they rely on these meals year-round, both during the school year and over the summer. Additionally, research shows when a child is well fed, they perform better in school, are at lower risk for obesity, and adjust to social situations better.

Without the waivers, Massachusetts families will have to go back to completing complex paperwork that is required for a child to receive meals, which depend on family income. Although an estimated 20 percent of Massachusetts families are food insecure, one-quarter of children from food insecure families in the state did not qualify for free or reduced price school lunch in 2019. This is because Massachusetts is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, yet still must use the same federal income guidelines to determine eligibility. Under universal school meals, income guidelines for school meals eligibility are no longer necessary.

Too many families are living in poverty and do not have enough food to eat. Now is not the time to make access to food harder than it already is for Massachusetts families. California and Maine have already passed state legislation making school meals for all permanent, and similar campaigns are underway in other states. This is a chance for Massachusetts to join California and Maine in leading the nation to support the health of our children.

We can do this by establishing a statewide universal school meals program, an effort that is already supported by a bipartisan group of Massachusetts legislators. Currently, a one-year extension of the program is included in the fiscal year 2023 budget proposal put forth by the House of Representatives. As the Senate works to finalize their proposal, 400,000 Massachusetts children who stand to lose access to this resource in two short months need them to include it as well.

Just this week, President Biden announced that the White House will hold a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health and release a roadmap to addressing food insecurity in our country. We need bold solutions at all levels of government to address this crisis. This is an urgent opportunity for our state to do the right thing and keep our children from going hungry. We must continue to offer school meals for all.

Jennifer Lemmerman is vice president of public policy at Project Bread, an organization that connects people in Massachusetts who don’t have enough to eat with reliable access to healthy food every day. This work informs the nonprofit’s advocacy policies to break the generational cycle of hunger.