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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, April 15, 2024

A program designed to give Mass. students free school meals may be made permanent

The Massachusetts State House is pictured.

Massachusetts state lawmakers have introduced a proposal called “School Meals For All,” a continuation of a program that fed students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Representative Andres Vargas, who represents Haverhill, and Senator Sal DiDomenico, who represents Everett, filed the legislation.

According to advocacy group Project Bread, one in five Massachusetts households with kids are food insecure, with Black, Latino and multiracial families being impacted disproportionately. During the pandemic, federal and state government programs provided students with free lunches. Before the pandemic, a family with one child would have to make around $18,000 per year or less to qualify for free breakfast and lunch, according to Vargas.

“If you make $19,000 and you have one child, you make too much money [to qualify] … that was the system we had before the pandemic,” Vargas said. “We know that around 27% of food insecure kids prior to the pandemic did not qualify for free breakfast and lunch, so we were leaving those kids out while stigmatizing the kids who needed the free breakfast and lunch by putting them in certain buckets.” 

Prior to the pandemic, the system was broken up into three tiers: a full-price tier, a reduced rate tier and a completely free tier. These tiers were funded partially by the state government through the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and through federal funds from the National School Lunch Program. If passed, the bill would make the meals free for all and use increased state funding to make up the difference in funding. 

According to Leran Minc, an assistant director of public policy at Project Bread, even in the so-called “full-price tier” there are many families who are struggling.

“There really are a lot of households in that paid category that are being asked to pay that full price, but really can’t afford it or are still struggling or would really benefit from some additional support,” Minc said.

Accessibility is another concern for advocates and experts alike. Some American children consume up to half of their daily calorie intake at school, so the type of food kids eat and frequency with which they eat it has an outsize influence on their diet and larger health outcomes, according to Daniel Hatfield, professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. 

“For a lot of kids, [school lunches] are the most nutritious meals that they have access to all day,” Hatfield said.

Hatfield also stressed the importance of the universal nature of the program. 

“When you make school meals universally free, there’s a lot of research to show that participation in those meals programs will go up, and that’s particularly true for … communities at a socioeconomic disadvantage,” he said.

For Vargas, this bill represents a key step in defining what a public education means in the state and the nation at large.

“The hope is that in getting this bill passed, … we affirm for the first time really that free school meals are an essential part of a public education, just as essential as your textbooks, as your desk, as your school nurse,” Vargas said.

Vargas referenced research showing the struggles that hungry kids face in schools just to retain information and stay attentive in class.

“We can have the best school buildings and the best teachers, but if kids are hungry, they won’t be able to learn,” he said.

Vargas and other advocates point to studies that show the improved behavioral, academic and broader cultural and environmental outcomes when kids are universally well fed. 

While Vargas and other advocates are intent on making their case to the state, they still have a long road ahead until the bill has a chance of reaching Governor Healey’s desk. Minc, who is leading the advocacy for this bill on behalf of Project Bread, and Vargas both view getting this bill on the legislative agenda as one of their biggest challenges. 

“We have people send emails, make phone calls and send Tweets to legislators to really show that there is broad support for these programs,” Minc said.

Next come the hearings and legislative meetings, where Minc and his colleagues testify regularly on behalf of bills they advocate for both in hearings and in private meetings with lawmakers.

“We are really involved from start to finish in trying to make sure these bills get passed and that legislators have the information they need to know why something is important and why it should be a priority," Minc said.

While the original focus was a year-long extension of the COVID-19-era program through the state budget, Minc and Vargas hope to get a more comprehensive long-term program passed early next year with a wide range of support, from the governor to the Republican State House minority leader. While advocates are confident in their prospects, a lot of the bill’s success, according to Minc, will come down to “how loudly we advocate.”