In the state of Massachusetts, we’re celebrating an incredible victory as kids head back to school in September. This month, the state legislature and Governor Maura Healey passed a fiscal year 2024 budget that ensures permanent, free school meals for all K-12 students, joining seven other states (California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont) in taking a firm stance to end child hunger.
This budget continues a program that started during the height of food insecurity nationwide, when federal waivers allowed schools to provide meals at no cost to families amidst COVID-19 closures and remote learning. In Massachusetts, an estimated 23.6 percent of households with children were food insecure at the height of the pandemic, and nationwide, states saw a sustained increase in school meal participation in response, with 50 percent more students—over 10 million across the country—taking part during the 2021-2022 school year. Even before federal waivers ended in June 2022, California and Maine secured funding for permanent school meals for all statewide, and six other states have followed suit in the last year, through budget provisions, legislative bills, and even a voter passed tax measure in Colorado.
Massachusetts was one of five states to consistently provide free school meals for all through the 2022-2023 school year, but the extension was initially a one-year commitment through the FY23 state budget. Anti-hunger nonprofit Project Bread launched the Feed Kids Coalition and spearheaded advocacy efforts over the last three years to reach out to legislators and make the voices of students, parents, educators, school districts, businesses and community and faith-based organizations heard. The necessity, value and benefits of universal school meals were made clear by over 4,200 advocates reaching out, calling, emailing, tweeting, and showing up over 18,000 times in front of Massachusetts legislators.
This grassroots campaign led to a statewide win, but now Massachusetts shifts it focus to program implementation. Already, we’ve seen a massive increase in participation when school meals are available at no cost. In the Commonwealth, for example, 66,756 more children participated daily in school lunch on average in March 2023 compared to March 2019, prior to universal school meals, according to data by the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The increase in participation has brought some challenges. Initially, in September 2021, when schools reopened and faced an increased demand, there were food sourcing challenges, as pandemic supply chain issues negatively impacting schools making large food orders and trying to plan their menus weeks and months in advance. Currently, school nutrition departments are also navigating the time set aside for lunch. Under School Meals for All, Massachusetts will cover the cost of meals not covered by the federal government so that schools can offer meals to all without requiring families to contribute a copay. Without needing to process payments, lunch lines can move at a quicker pace, but these days, there are still more students needing to go through those lines.
Through it all, school nutrition departments have worked hard to adjust, creatively thinking through substitutions amidst supply chain shortages that adhere to USDA standards (like switching to a burrito bowl when tortillas are in short supply) and expanding their capacity to meet the increased demand. One of the major benefits of School Meals for All is that it eliminates school meal debt collection and allows federal and state reimbursed funds to go directly towards program improvements. Under the old system, unpaid meal debt would often leave a deficit for many districts already struggling to manage their budgets with limited resources. With increased participation and increased reimbursements as a result, school nutrition departments have been able to fund increases in staffing, improvements to their cafeteria equipment, and investments in fresh food from their local economies.
In states where free school meals ended with the federal waivers, we’ve seen article after article about increasing debt, rising food insecurity, and the confusion and challenges families are facing having to return to the tiered system of school meals. The outlook has been grim, but organizations across the country are pushing ahead with state campaigns to make school meals for all permanent. Nationally, we are watching for progress on the federal bill (HR3204/S1568) to make Universal School Meals permanent, as well as proposed expansions to the Community Eligibility Program.
We cannot wait for the federal government though, and as some states advance efforts to pass legislation, I urge others to take up the call to solve child hunger. Eight states down, 42 more to go.
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Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture