A new Massachusetts law is expected to give thousands of additional students access to free meals at school and will prohibit school employees from punishing students who have meal debt by publicly identifying them, denying them a meal, or serving them an alternative meal.
The law, ceremonially signed by Governor Charlie Baker on Monday, requires schools and districts to offer all students free breakfast and lunch if a majority of its students meet low-income criteria, the governor’s office said in a statement.
“This legislation is another way we can ensure all children in the Commonwealth have access to healthy meals when they are in school,” Baker said in the statement. “We are thankful to our partners in the Legislature for their leadership on this important issue so that no child goes hungry and can focus on their learning and education.”
Districts will also be allowed to certify students for free or reduced-priced meals for up to four consecutive school years, the governor’s office said.
“As a state, we simply cannot accept hungry students as part of our reality,” state Senate President Karen Spilka said in the statement. “Students who don’t get enough to eat every single day face very real disadvantages as compared to their peers.”
Secretary of Education James Peyser said in the statement that “school meals are critical to students’ health and well-being.”
“This new law will expand access to free school meals to ensure thousands of additional students have access to healthy meals every day so they can learn and grow to their full potential,” he said.
In addition to providing additional access to free meals, the new law works to protect students with meal debt. Districts will be required to determine if a student with an unpaid meal debt is eligible for free or reduced-priced meals within 30 days of the family being notified of the debt. Students will continue to have access to meals until a determination is made about whether the family is eligible for those types of meals.
The legislation also prevents school employees from using punitive measures against students with meal debt, including publicly identifying them, denying them a meal, throwing away their meal, or preventing them from receiving grades or graduating due to their unpaid meal debt.
“This bill will end the undue burden on students whose families have school meal debt by preventing children from being involved,” Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said in the statement. “No child should be involved in debt collection or made to feel uncomfortable when they go to eat lunch at school.”