Extending funds for free state school meals urged by activists, educators

Students examine a milk carton during lunch.
Students examine a milk carton during lunch.

BOSTON — Educators and antihunger activists in Massachusetts are encouraging state lawmakers to approve emergency funding for the state’s free universal school meals program for the remainder of the academic year and through June 2024 and to enact legislation that would fund the program in perpetuity.

The program, offering the 900,000 students enrolled in the state’s public school system free meals, was launched by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. State lawmakers opted to keep the program going, even after the federal government discontinued funding last year.

Massachusetts is one of five states that opted to continue the funding.

More:Uxbridge superintendent, activists urge Mass. legislators to make free school meals permanent

As the school year winds to a close, educators are pushing those lawmakers to pass Gov. Maura Healey’s two supplemental budgets. The first filed in January included $65 million to fund the program through June, the second included $171 million to carry the program through the 2023-24 academic year.

About 550,000 school-aged public school students participate in the universal meal program daily, according to Leran Minc, assistant director of state policy at Project Bread, an anti-hunger organization that is advocating for the continuation of free meals.

“It’s about more than just hunger, it’s an education issue,” Minc said.

Program addresses hidden hunger, food insecurity

Educators attending the online information session Thursday organized by Project Bread all agreed - hungry kids have a hard time learning.

Lowell high school student Addario Miranda, 16, remembers his first years in elementary school when his single mother couldn’t afford to pay for even the reduced meals the family qualified for. He would often go hungry.

Jeannie Fein washes strawberries while preparing the fresh fruit for the lunch period during a tour of the cafeteria at East Middle School in Braintree in 2022. More than a half-million children eat free school meals throughout the state.
Jeannie Fein washes strawberries while preparing the fresh fruit for the lunch period during a tour of the cafeteria at East Middle School in Braintree in 2022. More than a half-million children eat free school meals throughout the state.

“I would go through the day ‘hangry,’ “ Miranda said, explaining that he hated attending school and was unexcited, and unengaged. He was ashamed of bringing inadequate food — a single PBJ sandwich, prepackaged "lunch" snacks and other easy items.

But with the advent of free universal school meals, he could eat the same lunch as his peers. He said his attitude changed, and he was excited to attend school and to learn.

“It changed my whole outlook about school,” Miranda said.

Educator outlook changed as well.

Marta Garcia, Massachusetts’ teacher of the year and an English for non-native speakers teacher in Salem, pointed out that educators no longer use qualifying for free or reduced meals as a measure of which children can learn.

“Students were labeled,” Garcia said, explaining that “qualifying for free lunch” was used as an academic assessment tool, the implication being that those students were unable to learn and unlike other students. “There was an implication of poverty.”

Free meals reduce stigma, shame

Now that all meals are free, the label doesn’t exist anymore, Garcia said.

“No one worries about food anymore,” Garcia said. Now when they discuss food in her class, it’s more about culture than about who has money to eat.

Lunch lady Diane LaCroix serves nachos at at the Knox Trail Middle School in Spencer.
Lunch lady Diane LaCroix serves nachos at at the Knox Trail Middle School in Spencer.

In the Andover district, the funding for universal meals has improved the quality of the meals offered to include local produce and dairy, said Magda Parvey, schools superintendent.

“In Andover, 75-80% of families are accessing the free meals program,” Parvey said. The increase in children eating has risen dramatically; 28% eat breakfast regularly and 75% of children enrolled in the district eat lunch daily. The numbers are up from 18% eating morning meals and 50% eating lunch.

“In a wealthy community, food insecurity is hidden,” Parvey said. The biggest beneficiaries of the program in her district are those families considered middle income. With inflation and the costs of food rising, the program offers a break from the high cost of living in Massachusetts.

Analysts calculate the universal free meal program saves Massachusetts families roughly $1,200 annually per child. If universal school meals are not made permanent through the state Legislature or extended through the state budget, 400,000 students are set to lose access to free school meals.

“Hunger is an invisible stigma,” said Paul Haughey, superintendent for Spencer East Brookfield Public Schools .

Excuses, lunch money no longer needed

In his district, cafeteria workers were instructed to allow children who “forgot” their lunches or lunch money to charge a meal and run a deficit so that they did not go hungry.

“Food insecurity is a barrier to learning,” Haughey said, adding that hungry children “can’t learn” and also act out.

Uxbridge Schools Superintendent Michael Baldassarre speaks in favor of a legislative initiative to fund the universal free school meals program during a press conference in January at the Statehouse in Boston.
Uxbridge Schools Superintendent Michael Baldassarre speaks in favor of a legislative initiative to fund the universal free school meals program during a press conference in January at the Statehouse in Boston.

The 1,433 children registered for public schools in his district have eaten 25,723 breakfasts and 48,887 lunches, or 74,610 total meals.

Schools’ administrators also discussed the other benefits of the state-funded program, including the ability to incorporate local, fresh products from area farms; the ability to tailor meals to reflect a district’s cultural diversity; tailor meals to accommodate special dietary needs as well as invest in more modern equipment; and even give cafeteria workers raises.

“There’s been a huge difference in the quality of the food,” said Bernie McMann, the coordinator of health services and wellness for Billerica Public Schools. With federal continued reimbursements added to the state funding, his district has been able to increase the amount spent on children’s meals.

His educators have seen changes in educational outcomes as well as behaviors. There are fewer midmorning trips to the nurses’ office for a snack to abate hunger-induced headaches and bellyaches. Children, McMann said, are more ready to learn.

Feeding children at school makes sense

Garcia pointed out that by law children are required to attend school for 180 days a year, six hours a day. It makes sense, Garcia said, to feed them where they spend the bulk of their day.

She quoted her countryman and celebrated chef Jose Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, who is currently feeding people in Ukraine.

“Jose says to build longer tables, not higher walls,” Garcia said.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Massachusetts educators, activists urge keeping school meals free