Today in Massachusetts, 1 in 5 households with children are food insecure, with Black and Latinx families disproportionately impacted. COVID-19 has shed a light on the state of hunger in our state and in our nation.
However, we know this was always a crisis. Too many people in our state were struggling to meet their most basic of human needs – food – even before this pandemic. And kids have always been one of the groups most impacted. As we recover from this pandemic, we must recognize the important of schools meals.
School meals are a critical source of nutrition for many children, helping them learn and be active in the short term, and thrive academically, physically, and emotionally in the long term. School meals also establish lifelong healthy eating habits that can reduce the cases and severity of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, along with the cost associated with these diseases.
School meals can account for over half of a child’s daily calories. These are children who might not otherwise have reliable access to healthy food at home. But right now, more than half of students who could benefit from school meals aren’t eating them. While there are many reasons for this, two of the biggest barriers that stop children from participating in school meals are the cost of purchasing meals and the stigma of being singled out as needing a school meal.
With legislation that would guarantee school meals for all! Also known as universal school meals, our policy proposal would allow every student who wants or needs a school breakfast or lunch to receive meals at no cost to their family. The cost would be covered by the existing National School Lunch Program federal reimbursement combined with a supplemental state reimbursement.
With this policy, we choose to imagine a new system. One without paperwork to show a family’s income; one without meal debt; one without stigma. One that is equitable. A system where the focus is squarely on feeding kids quality school meals.
An estimated 27% of food insecure children are not eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Many more likely live in a home where an economic crisis—a lost job, an unexpected medical bill, a global pandemic—would mean a tightening of an already tight budget. We can ensure that, while at school, every child is fed and ready to learn by passing universal school meals legislation.
Whether it is a long-term condition or an acute need during a crisis that a family has never experienced before, school meals are a critical resource to a family that is struggling to put food on the table. We don’t require some students to pay for their education at public schools, or books, or visits to the school nurse based on their family’s income – all things, like food, that are critical to education. Why should school meals be any different?
Increasing access is a critical ingredient for quality. Similar to how Massachusetts addressed health care access before turning to cost containment, we believe that we must prioritize responding to alarmingly high rates of childhood food insecurity by expanding access to school meals now.
Currently, participation rates are low primarily because of cost and stigma. By addressing those barriers, we can increase participation which leads to greater revenue for school nutrition programs. This revenue, in turn, can be invested in ingredients, equipment, and staff training. Districts across the Commonwealth have seen this improvement in meals under CEP including Salem, Springfield, and Wareham to name just a few.
Salem Public Schools, for example, was able to use additional revenue to purchase a refrigerated truck. The truck was used to transport organic fruits and vegetables, more cheaply and efficiently, between schools to be used in all their meals.