Vargas Appeals to Healey’s Pledge, Says Free School Meals Saving Families $1,200 A Year

Rep. Andy X. Vargas during a Pfc. Ralph T. Basiliere Bridge meeting March 9, 2023. (WHAV News photograph.)

While lawmakers wait for Gov. Maura Healey to file promised legislation paying for another year of universal school meals, Haverhill Rep. Andy X. Vargas pitched the program as a way to tackle one of the governor’s top goals: affordability.

Vargas, in a bid seeking a permanent extension of the program he has long championed, told administration officials Monday that in addition to keeping students well-fed and better prepared for classes, the availability of free meals in schools has also put a sizable chunk of change back into parents’ pockets.

“I think it’s right in line with the governor’s goals around affordability as well. We know that this is saving families about $1,200 a year per kid, which is huge,” Vargas said at a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing, noting that Healey “has placed a huge emphasis on affordability in the Commonwealth.”

Massachusetts was one of just five states to deploy its own dollars to keep offering free in-school meals for all students after federal waivers expired in June. The original $110 million allotment was not enough, however, and lawmakers have advanced legislation to inject $65 million more to cover the rest of the school year. Vargas, who filed a bill that would make the option permanent, said more than 80,000 students are now eating meals in school, about 30,000 more than lawmakers anticipated when they rolled out the program. “Many of those (are) in districts where they previously qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, but weren’t eating and now are because the stigma has been removed, which is really exciting,” he said.

Healey plans to propose another year of money for the program in a forthcoming supplemental budget, which Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler said he believes will be “filed at some point this week.”

Chris Lisinski, State House News Service.

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