For children who go to school hungry, the time between their first class and their first meal can seem endless. While some will receive free or reduced price meals, many come from families who are food insecure but whose income is just over the line that makes them eligible for these benefits. When kids go to school hungry, they are not able to focus and their performance suffers in comparison to that of their peers. They also face the stigma of receiving a “free lunch,” inclining them to skip meals out of embarrassment.
That is why the idea of universal school meals that provide food to all students at no cost has been gaining momentum across the country. With legislation introduced at the federal level, and individual bills being filed at the state level, School Meals for All could soon be a reality for children in America.
This June, California became the first state to guarantee free meals to all children. Maine soon followed with similar legislation. Ensuring that every child has access to the resources they need to succeed in school has made California and Maine the gold standard to which other states must measure up. Project Bread celebrates the passage of this legislation that provides every child access to free breakfast and lunch, reduces the stigma around free meals, and breaks down barriers for children who previously did not qualify because of language barriers, immigration status, or being just above the line of eligibility.
It is time for Massachusetts to join California and Maine and demonstrate a commitment to solving childhood hunger by passing School Meals for All legislation that will provide every child access to school meals at no cost.
The passage of universal school meals in two states is a major turning point and a realistic indicator of how a nationwide program might function. Both states have decided to substantially invest in student success through funding the program with their education budgets. California is anticipating 650 million dollars a year with Maine budgeting around 65 million dollars for the same period.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the hunger crisis in the United States came into stark focus, with food banks and pantries overwhelmed by people who could not access food. One of the ways the USDA addressed the crisis was to issue waivers that provided free breakfast and lunch “to go” for all students, effectively piloting universal free school meals. The success of these waivers demonstrated how effective these programs could be in schools. In Massachusetts, for instance, 72.4% of households with children who received free food reported that they had received this food from a school meal site over the last school year.
Given such success, it is no surprise that Senators Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Representatives Ihan Omar and Gwen Moore, have announced legislation to “permanently provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all school children regardless of income, eliminate school meal debt, and strengthen local economies by incentivizing local food procurement.”
Massachusetts must be the next state to join California and Maine in permanently implementing universal school meals. On average, Massachusetts spends almost four thousand dollars more per student than Maine, demonstrating the ability to support the infrastructure needed to implement this legislation. Massachusetts is clearly capable of investing in our students just as California and Maine have.
Right now, An Act Relative to Universal School Meals has been referred to the Joint Committee on Education. You can act to move this legislation forward by reaching out to your legislators and asking them to cosponsor or thanking them if they have. Together, we can help Massachusetts to truly become a state dedicated to solving childhood hunger.