Frequently Asked Questions

FAQs About Schools Meals for All

FAQs

Healthy 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. The cost would be covered by the existing National School Lunch Program federal reimbursement combined with a supplemental state reimbursement.

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.

Since the 1940s, child nutrition programs have been tasked with feeding as many children that are in need as possible while doing so with limited resources. For this reason, federally-reimbursed meals divide children into tiers--some kids pay full price, some kids pay reduced, and some kids receive free meals.

We choose to imagine a new system. One without paperwork to show your income; one without meal debt; one without stigma. One that is equitable. One where the focus is squarely on feeding kids quality schools meals. 

Healthy school meals for all is a necessary step toward ending hunger in our state. 

Today in Massachusetts, 1 in 5 households with children are food insecure, with black and Latinx families disproportionately impacted. 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, too many children 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 free or reduced price school meal.

Universal school meals eliminates financial barriers by ensuring any child can receive a meal, regardless of income, removing stigma and shame. No student is required to pay fees before entering their classroom to learn, or seeing the school nurse or a guidance counselor. The same should apply to the fundamental need for food.

Under a statewide universal school meals system, all schools in Massachusetts would provide free meals to all students. The federal government would continue to provide per-meal reimbursements to schools based on their free/reduced/paid tiers, and the Commonwealth would make up the additional cost of meals.

School meals are served at different price tiers: free, reduced-price, and full price. Households qualify for free or reduced-price through an application or through participation in other federal assistance programs. For families with household earnings less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) receive meals for free. Households above 130 percent but below 185 percent FPL receive meals at a reduced-price fee ($.30 for breakfast and $.40 for lunch), and all other students must pay full price (which varies by school district).

Currently, schools can opt into serving universal free meals by adopting one of several federal provisions, most commonly the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) or Provision II. Only schools and districts with a demonstrated level of need can adopt CEP, while all schools are eligible to participate in Provision II. The details of each are different, but in both cases, the local district is often still required to cover a portion of the cost of meals, except in the case of the highest need districts. This can make it financially challenging or prohibitive for districts to adopt universal meals without additional resources. 

As of the 2019-2020 school year, 685 of the 2,158 schools in Massachusetts utilize CEP to provide universal school meals to their students. Adopting a statewide universal school meals policy would benefit these communities in several ways.

First, statewide universal school meals would guarantee that the district will continue to be able to provide universal school meals even if demographics change. CEP requires a school or group of schools to meet a certain threshold of need before being eligible to participate. Once CEP is adopted, schools may continue to serve universal school meals for at least four years, at which time they must still meet that threshold. Statewide universal school meals would ensure schools can always serve meals to all students.

Second, reimbursement for CEP varies based on the demonstrated level of need in the community. In some communities, schools are only being reimbursed at the free rate for 65-70% of the meals served. All additional meals are reimbursed at the much lower paid rate. A state reimbursement would fill that gap, allowing those schools to focus on maintaining or improving meal quality instead of keeping costs low. 

Universal means universal. There are families living with food insecurity in every single community in Massachusetts. 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?

Furthermore, over 1 in 4 food insecure children live in households that do not qualify for free or reduced price meals. The high cost of living in Massachusetts leaves many families in a precarious state: they earn too much to receive federal assistance from programs such as SNAP, but too little to eat full and healthy diets. Healthy school meals for all would ensure that at least school-aged children can rely on school meals.

The short answer is no.

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) provides federal reimbursements for serving children and teens during the summer. Eligibility for the Summer Food Service Program is determined in a few ways at the federal level, and these would not be changed by schools serving school meals for all statewide. In many communities, sites can serve meals to anyone 18 or under because of the numbers of free or reduced price eligible students that live nearby.