Food insecurity and limited access to affordable and reliable broadband have been constant challenges throughout the coronavirus pandemic and during these early stages of economic recovery. However, the increased number of economically disadvantaged families with children enrolled in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program during 2020 also means that Massachusetts is well positioned to capitalize on a federal child nutrition program that can address both food insecurity and broadband access — Community Eligibility Provision.
Individual schools and school districts that qualify for the program are able to provide free meals to all students, without collecting school meal applications, meal fees, or chasing families for unpaid meal debt. If the state acts now, data on the historically high number of economically disadvantaged children is locked in for the next four years. This means it can guarantee universal free school meals in many districts for at least the next four years. This is especially critical now, as federal COVID funding for universal free meals for kids ends in June of 2022. Our bill would ensure that Massachusetts schools capitalize on this opportunity before it’s too late.
School districts or individual schools with more than 40 percent economically disadvantaged students are eligible to apply for the program, which reimburses the costs of providing universal free breakfast and lunch to every student. The program works through economies of scale — at a certain point it’s cheaper and more effective to provide every student with free meals, instead of collecting paperwork to discern who is deserving.
In addition to eliminating barriers to school meals, CEP districts benefit in other ways:
- Pandemic EBT cards sent to every student household in CEP schools or districts when schools are closed to regular in-person learning, as well as during the summer months. P-EBT provides a local infusion of dollars to grocery stores and bodegas. These benefits were just extended through September 2021 and will provide payments twice this summer.
- Federal broadband benefits for every student household in the district to qualify for $50 a month off of their Internet service and up to $100 to purchase a computer. This is available to all students in current CEP districts for as long as federal broadband funding exists.
- Decreased child hunger due to greater school meal participation rates, as well as lower administrative burdens on school districts to process paperwork and collect meal fees.
The federal government continues to tie its relief programs to CEP, a clear indicator that it sees the success and benefits of the provision. The Biden administration’s American Families Plan includes language that would also raise reimbursements by increasing the multiplier for CEP making it even more affordable for schools to provide free meals and making CEP accessible to more schools and districts.
Haverhill Public Schools Superintendent Margaret Marotta Smith enrolled the district in CEP the year before the pandemic hit. The district has seen increased meal participation rates; the critical food resource from P-EBT has allowed families to keep food on the table; and now every household with a student in Haverhill schools is eligible for federal broadband benefits.
Dozens of Massachusetts schools and districts meet the criteria for CEP. It is no exaggeration to say that money and meals are being left on the table for years to come if the Legislature doesn’t act now. Our bill, An Act to Promote Student Nutrition H.715, would move Massachusetts closer to providing universal free school meals for all children. We don’t ask kids and families if they can afford a visit to the school nurse or to pay for the desk in front of them — why do we continue to treat something as essential as food as an inferior need?
Finally, while enrollment numbers may have changed in schools due to children being pulled out due to COVID-19, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students has only gone up, since poorer students are the least likely to be pulled to be homeschooled or attend private school. Project Bread notes that this legislation would result in millions of federal dollars flowing to school districts and thousands more students eating school meals free from the barrier of cost and stigma for years to come.
The Legislature should lock in this data and opportunity.
State Representative Andy X. Vargas represents the 3rd Essex District. State Representative Sean Garballey represents the 23rd Middlesex District.