Among the school-day innovations brought about by the pandemic, universal free lunch may be the most popular, easing the burden on cash-strapped parents as well as hungry students who no longer feel self-conscious among their paying classmates.
But federally funded free lunches for all, like school mask mandates, are now slated to go away after Congress failed to take action earlier this month to authorize an extension. Now advocates for children say it is time for the state to take over and pass legislation that would keep school lunches free for all indefinitely, at an estimated cost of $100 million per year.
“We want Massachusetts to be among the states that say, ‘This is one of the lessons we learned from the pandemic’,” said Erin McAleer, chief executive of Project Bread, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps schools fight student hunger. “This has been a lifeline for families, and research shows the health and academic benefits.”
The federal government moved quickly when schools shut down in March 2020 to make changes to its school nutrition program, opening up access to free meals as districts scrambled to find new ways to distribute them. More challenges followed: pandemic-related labor shortages and supply chain interruptions that forced further adaptation. Through it all, school meal managers were spared one longtime headache: collecting and processing piles of paperwork to figure out which students should pay full price, a reduced rate, or nothing at all.
Meanwhile, families statewide were spared the hassle and expense of paying for school lunches, and embraced the stress-free “new normal.” Recognizing the effort it may take to get families re-acclimated to the old routines, Rob Leshin, director of food and nutrition programs for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, recently started urging school districts to begin the transition sooner rather than later.
“At this point, households haven’t paid for these meals for multiple years,” Leshin said. “Now is probably the time to start getting them friendly again with the traditional program, how to put money on their kids’ accounts.”
A growing coalition of advocates and state legislators hope that readjustment won’t be necessary. Efforts to pass state legislation covering the cost of universal school food access, known as School Meals for All, date back to January 2021, but gained new urgency this month after Congress let the free lunch expansion expire, failing to include it in a $1.5 trillion comprehensive spending package.
Nearly 100 state legislators have signed on in support, along with medical and nutrition specialists, social workers, school administrators, and parents, said Representative Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill who hopes to see it voted on this spring. Under the legislation, school districts would still receive federal reimbursement for every meal served, but the state would cover the remaining costs, instead of families.
“This is a relatively low-cost investment for a high-impact return: all kids will receive two nutritious school meals, no questions asked,” Vargas said via e-mail. “We don’t ask how expensive it is to provide free school nurse visits to all school children. … Food is just as essential.”
Statewide, an estimated 20 percent of families with children struggle with food insecurity, meaning that they lack reliable access to enough nutritious, affordable meals, according to Project Bread, yet one-quarter of children in those families failed to qualify for free school lunch in 2019 under federal income guidelines.
Though Massachusetts is one of the most expensive places to live in the country, districts here must use the same income guidelines as everywhere else to determine who can eat for free. Beginning in July, a family of four with annual income of $51,338 or less will qualify for reduced-price lunch, and a family of four with annual income of $36,075 or less will qualify for free lunch.
Food service directors say they dread a return to the days when one of their jobs was debt collector, chasing down families for missing payments, and watching their relationships fray as a result.
“These staff members go into this work to feed kids, not to become bookkeepers chasing paperwork,” said McAleer. “We want them to be able to focus on preparing healthy meals, being creative, and engaging students.”
Some towns and cities, including Boston, are already safe from the return of school lunch fees. Districts where high rates of students have low household incomes can seek extra federal support under the Community Eligibility Provision, allowing them to offer all meals free; Boston has done so for years. But those districts, too, will see their federal meal reimbursement rates drop by an estimated 25 percent when the program reverts back to its pre-pandemic structure — a hit that will tighten budgets and could shrink staffing and food choices, said program directors.
West of Worcester in Belchertown, a town of 15,000 where about 29 percent of students qualify for free lunches under federal income limits, food service director Barrett Grazioso is worried about the changes ahead. With the cost of some supplies, like paper products and chicken, recently running as much as 50 percent above normal, she will soon need to answer a painful, pressing question: How to cover the skyrocketing costs, without charging more for lunches than families can manage.
“It would be a relief on so many levels if we could keep” meals free, she said. “There are so many families who come close to qualifying for free lunch, but don’t — sometimes by $100 — and this would really help them. … I can guarantee that for some kids, this is one of the healthiest meals they get.”
In Plymouth, where about one-third of students qualify for free meals, longtime food service director Patrick Van Cott said he has never forgotten learning, years ago, that student hunger is a top driver of school nurse visits.
“That’s when my eyes really opened,” he said. “Universal free lunch tore down a lot of walls.”
School lunch participation surged during the pandemic, increasing some 40 percent in districts that didn’t previously offer meals free to all, said McAleer. The boom has been record-breaking in Belchertown, where most students now choose school lunch daily, rather than bringing their own. Their robust participation, combined with higher federal reimbursement rates, has put the local program in the black for the first time in years, said Grazioso, allowing her to hire more staff, buy more locally grown food, and serve more fresh produce.
Serving everyone for free also eliminates the stigma of free lunch, she said — a big deal for self-conscious youngsters anxious to avoid revealing their household’s fragile economic status.
The phaseout of the federal free lunch measure will affect students well before next fall; there will be fewer summer lunch sites for students around the state as a result, Leshin said. At those that remain, meals will have to be consumed on site, without the option for take-home boxes or parent pick-up, as was allowed under the expanded program during the pandemic.
At least two states, Maine and California, already have chosen to assume the cost of making school meals permanently free for everyone. In Belchertown, Grazioso hopes Massachusetts will be next.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” she said.