House Advances Vargas Bill Requiring All Pupils in Poor Areas to Receive Free School Meals

State Rep. Andy X. Vargas. (Courtesy photograph.)

Free breakfast and lunch for all students at schools or in school districts with a majority of poor households would become state law under a bill sponsored by state Rep. Andy X. Vargas and recently passed by the full House.

An Act Promoting Student Nutrition, originally filed by Vargas and Rep. Sean Garballey of Arlington, also prohibits shaming students with outstanding meal debts or preventing them for participating in extracurricular activities. It moves on to the state Senate. The bill requires individual schools or school districts with 60% or more economically disadvantaged students and individual schools with 50% percent or more economically disadvantaged students to take advantage of federal aid available for providing meals at no cost to families.

“With this bill, we will feed more kids, eliminate meal debt shaming and stigma, and maximize federal resources for schools across the Commonwealth. With the historically high percentage of economically disadvantaged students across the state, it makes sense to lock in this data now, which the federal government recognizes for at least the next four years,” Vargas said in a statement.

The federal Community Eligibility Provision is an option for schools and school districts in low-income areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.

Vargas said the legislation also abolishes policies which can shame students for having unpaid school meal debt. School meal debt has been a challenge for school districts as they struggle to ensure students are fed and ready to learn while ensuring the costs of food and labor are covered. According to the School Nutrition Association, 76 percent of school districts reported having outstanding debt.

Under the bill, schools cannot publicly identify students who owe meals, serve an alternative meal, deny a student a meal as a form of discipline, dispose of an already served meal because of a student’s lack of money or unresolved debt, prohibit a student or a sibling of a student from attending or participating in non-fee-based extracurricular activities, field trips or school events solely because of the student’s unresolved meal debt or impose other related restrictions.

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