A decade later, Addario Miranda still remembers the anxiety he felt, as a first-grader growing up in Lynn, on days when the shelves in his mom’s refrigerator were mostly bare.
His mother — a single parent who worked a full-time job while attending college — seemed a little more stressed at those times. And her young son would worry there might not be enough food to pack a lunch in the morning or enough cash on hand to buy lunch at school.
“My mom made sure I had lunch, 99 percent of the time, but there were definitely days when I was scared of not being able to eat,” said Miranda, now 15. “There were times I was hungry in class, and I would get upset and act out and couldn’t communicate why, because I was so small … As a kid, it’s hard to understand, and it’s confusing.”
For more than two years, since the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, students in Massachusetts have been spared the worries that once plagued Miranda, under an emergency expansion of the federal school lunch program that made meals free for everyone. But with the end of that program looming on July 1 — and without an agreement by state legislators to permanently take it over — advocates for children now hope the state will fund a one-year extension, postponing a cutoff they say will leave kids hungry and less able to learn.
The House of Representatives included the $110 million cost of the extension in its proposed $50 billion budget for fiscal 2023, while the Senate has not made it part of their plan, setting up a potential deadline standoff when the two legislative bodies head into conference to hash out a consensus.
“We’re trying to do what we can to prevent kids from falling off that cliff,” said Jen Lemmerman, vice president of public policy for Project Bread, a Boston-based nonprofit that has led the recent efforts to keep school meals free to all.
Proponents say the program’s loss would set schools and students back, restoring hunger and uncertainty for children whose household incomes hover just above the cutoff for free lunch, as Miranda’s did, while returning school meal managers to the unwanted job of debt collectors. They say free school meals — to include both breakfast and lunch under the proposed state plan — level the playing field, promoting better health, nutrition, attendance, and undistracted learning.
Though rents in Massachusetts are higher than in most of the country, school districts here must use the same income guidelines to determine who can eat for free. A family of four must make less than $51,338 per year to qualify for reduced-price meals, or less than $36,075 for free lunch.
Adriana Mendes-Sheldon, a family engagement liaison with Woburn schools, cited the example of a family whose income, deemed too high to qualify, is consumed by medical bills.
“How can we expect hungry children to learn?” she said at a recent panel discussion on the issue, hosted by Project Bread. “We can’t.”
Legislators enacted some changes last year to improve lunch access and prevent students with lunch debt from going hungry. A related proposal to make all lunches permanently free gained broad bipartisan support, but remained mired in the Joint Committee on Education this spring as the federal phaseout drew near, prompting supporters to seek short-term relief in the budget process.
Critics of the state-funded free lunch plan have argued in the past that it would needlessly give handouts to those who can afford to pay, while contributing to food waste in school cafeterias. Yet observers say the one-year funding plan may survive the conference process: Senate leaders have signaled openness to the concept, and state revenue projections continue to increase.
Vermont lawmakers approved a similar one-year measure last month, while in Maine, legislators made a longer-term commitment to keep school meals free under a new law passed last year.
The rollback of federal funding will hit schools’ summer programs first. Following two years of expansion that allowed more sites to flourish and more students to be fed, advocates with Project Bread expect the loss of 50 sites and about 5 million meals this summer as a result of the federal program’s end.
Without state action, the full impact would be felt in the fall, when 400,000 students statewide would lose access to free school lunch and breakfast.
Miranda is among those who worry what will happen then. Now a high school freshman at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough, he recalls how his life changed when he moved from Lynn to Lowell around age 9, into a school district with free meals for all, the result of a special federal status granted to communities with the lowest incomes.
“It shocked me, the first week of school, when the principal said we would get pizza every Friday,” he said. “I was like, no way, every Friday? Every Friday!”
All at once, lunchtime felt easy and comfortable, even fun, a relief that remains palpable to him.
“A 10-year-old should not have to wonder if he’s going to be able to eat at school tomorrow,” he said. “I just don’t think a kid should have to wonder that.”