Rep. Vargas Files Legislation to Permanently Make All School Meals Free to Families

Rep. Andy X. Vargas. (WHAV News file photograph.)

After agreeing last summer to a $110 million one-year extension of a pandemic-era program, lawmakers, advocates and families are calling for the state to make school meals free for all Massachusetts students permanently.

New legislation filed by Rep. Andy X. Vargas of Haverhill and Sen. Sal DiDomenico of Everett would allow every Massachusetts student to receive free breakfast or lunch in school without providing income or other eligibility information.

“We know that when kids are hungry at school they cannot learn,” Vargas said. “We know that hungry kids have problems concentrating, have lower academic achievement, suffer cognitive development impairments and exhibit more behavioral problems than their food secure peers.”

Vargas said that prior to the universal program, more than a quarter of food insecure students in Massachusetts did not qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Others who may have qualified did not apply to the program due to stigma or other obstacles, he said.

Supporters of the policy gathered in a State House hearing room Thursday to promote the benefits of a program that they say ensures students have the nourishment they need to learn, while taking pressure off families.

Former Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers agreed in July to a one-year extension of free school meals for all students to the tune of $110 million in the state budget, which campaign organizers said makes Massachusetts one of five states continuing to offer no-cost meals to all students after the expiration of federal waivers in June.

DiDomenico said Thursday that the state would need to continue its commitment of $110 million—if not more—to continue the program. “Obviously, you know, everything goes up year by year, so it’ll be a little more, but that is the baseline,” DiDomenico said.

The bill calls for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to fill in the gaps of uncovered costs from federal programs, while encouraging schools to “maximize” access to federal funds.

Project Bread President Erin McAleer said Thursday that there are 56,000 more children eating lunch daily in Massachusetts schools today than there were in 2019, before the federal universal free meal policy began. She said stigma prevented her from getting food she needed as a child. She went from living in a middle-class home in West Peabody to facing food insecurity when her mother, dealing with domestic violence, decided to seek a divorce and became a single parent “overnight,” she said.

“Making universal school meals permanent ensures that no matter what home a child is coming from, they will be fed two nutritious meals every day without fear or stigma…Furthermore, universal school meals is a financial break for families providing upwards of $1,200 per child per year.”

Sam Drysdale, State House News Service.

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