You’ve probably heard “the pandemic revealed and exasperated” more times than you care to count. But the truth is that it did bring into sharp focus the struggles of many Massachusetts families to meet the most basic of needs. The pandemic also temporarily led to free school meals for all students. But that federal program, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is set to end in June 2022. As we look towards a time when the pandemic no longer affects our daily lives, let’s ensure we don’t let students return to classrooms hungry. All public school students should permanently receive free breakfast and lunch in school.
The issues our students and schools face are complex. Universal School Meals, a current bill in the Massachusetts State House, would be a simple, impactful step towards fulfilling our responsibility to provide a quality education for every child.
For many K-12 students, the possibility of returning to “normal” feels like it may be just around the corner. But “normal” for many in Massachusetts means going to class hungry. One in five households with children in Massachusetts experience food insecurity; even before the pandemic, it was one in 10. Project Bread estimates 27% of children who experience food insecurity do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Now is the time to say enough with “normal.” All students deserve access to free meals at school.
We claim to support every student in reaching their full potential. Massachusetts now has the chance to enact legislation that would do just that.
Universal School Meals, S.314 and H.714 in the State Senate and House respectively, would provide free breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students in public schools in Massachusetts. As adults we know it’s difficult to do our best when we are hungry: we can’t focus, we get “hangry.” It’s even worse for children. I don’t need to convince you that children need nutritious food to do their best in the classroom. We should not ask any child to learn on an empty stomach. Not only do current school meal programs leave out some students who need free meals, they also create stigma for students who do get free meals. No child wants to be separated or labeled based on their family’s income.
Who could disagree with feeding children? Opposition to this bill mainly comes down to money. Some funding would come from the federal government by maximizing participation in existing programs. For example, the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, offers schools with high levels of low-income students additional funding to implement free meals for all at the school level. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would provide the additional funding needed to reach all students. Yes, it’s an initial cost for the state, but we have to ask ourselves if we can afford not to make that investment in our children. Public schools don’t ask students to pay for books, or desks, or visits to the school nurse. Why should they ask for money when it’s time to eat?
Universal School Meals is an investment in the children, and therefore the future, of our state. According to the Food Research and Action Center, food insecurity is linked to costly health problems, which can directly or indirectly cost an estimated $160 billion in the United States. Access to school meals can increase academic performance and lead to lifelong healthy eating habits. These effects would positively impact the future economy.
I’m not a nutritionist, a teacher, a policy-maker, or an expert on school meals. But you don’t need to be to join this fight. Email your legislators. Text your friends and family and let them know about this bill and how they can make their voices heard too. This issue affects us all. I’m a student, an education major, and I’m passionate about education equity. We all have a duty to every student in our state and we recognize that public education is a public good. Whatever your reason for supporting this bill, reach out to your state representative and senator now to make sure they know you care about this issue and they need to as well.
Sophie Brill Weitz is a senior at Brandeis University and is currently a Teaching Fellow for Breakthrough Greater Boston’s after-school program.