School Meals Participation is On the Rise

From October 2019 to October 2021, 31,000 more students participated in school lunch marking an 18.1% increase in overall participation in Massachusetts.

During the last two years, families have faced a tumultuous time working to sustain themselves and feed their children amid layoffs, illness, remote work and learning, and more. USDA waivers implemented in March 2020 sought to fill the need by providing free school meals to all students.This meant any school that was not already providing free meals through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), and that was participating in the National School Lunch Program was suddenly eligible to provide meals to all students regardless of family income. This includes all public schools and most charter schools statewide.

When the pandemic hit, schools had to immediately shift to a new model of serving meals. As they shut down in-person learning, students lost access to in-person meals as well. As a result, most schools began serving free grab and go meals to all students. This was an incredible measure that allowed over 93 million school meals to children in Massachusetts at no cost while schools were closed in the 2020-2021 academic year. However, this model of meal service was–understandably– still unable to hit the participation numbers of regular, in-person school meals that were simply available as part of the school day. 

As schools reopened for consistent in-person instruction in September 2021 for the first time in 18 months, participation in school meals jumped. USDA waivers are still in place for this school year, allowing schools that otherwise would have a tiered payment model, to offer free school meals to all students. This has made a clear impact in allowing students who might otherwise not have participated in their school meals program to receive meals. According to data by the Department on Elementary and Secondary Education, between October 2019 and October 2021, there has been a 18.1% increase in overall school lunch participation and a 19.5% increase in overall school breakfast participation due to the universal, free school meals offered during the pandemic. 

Breaking that down to schools who were not able to serve free meals as part of the CEP in October 2019, the temporary waivers have led to a 39.1% in school lunch participation.

School nutrition staff have risen to meet the occasion, responding to supply chain shortages, staffing challenges, and the opportunity to feed all children coming through the cafeteria walls. Project Bread supports schools with promotional and informational materials, grants for kitchen supplies, one-on-one staff support, capacity building resources, and nutrition and cooking classes through our School Food Fellowship launched in October 2021. We are proud to see this reported increase in participation, and we urge the state legislature to report the School Meals for All bill (S.314/H.714) out favorably to make this positive change a permanent change.

Without USDA waivers and without a permanent passage of universal school meals, many students in Massachusetts risk losing access to the meals they have relied on over the past two years.

school meals

If the School Meals for All bill is not passed, 400,000 children would lose the ability to receive free meals at school.

Earlier this week, Congress chose not to extend USDA’s authority to continue pandemic-related waivers for school and summer meals. Without this crucial extension in place, free school meals for any non-CEP districts will expire on June 30, 2022.

Project Bread continues our push for permanent School Meals for All across the Commonwealth. Join our advocacy efforts today to support the sustained impact of reduced hunger for Massachusetts children!

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