Massachusetts lawmakers will continue to fund free school meals for all students, regardless of household income, under a one-year expansion of a free federal school lunch program.
The state legislature included $110 million in funding for the program under its $52.7 billion budget that was approved Monday.
Education advocates applauded the move, saying it will result in fewer students going hungry.
“We are so grateful to the legislature for recognizing the importance of free school meals,” said Erin McAleer, chief executive of Project Bread, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps schools fight student hunger and has led recent efforts to keep school meals free to all.
The budget has been sent to Governor Charlie Baker, who now has to review it and take action. Advocates are hopeful he will approve it.
Last year, Massachusetts legislators enacted changes to improve lunch access and prevent students with lunch debt from going hungry. A related proposal to make all lunches permanently free gained bipartisan support, but remained in the Joint Committee on Education this spring as the federal phaseout drew near, prompting supporters to instead seek short-term relief in the budget process.
The federally funded free meals program was born out of the pandemic, when campuses shuttered and students were sent home to learn remotely. Access to the free meals was expanded, easing one burden among families, and districts found new ways to get them to students. But the national program expires at the end of the summer because Congress failed to authorize an extension for another school year. Advocates pushed for the state to take over and keep school meals free indefinitely.
With the funds in the budget only being enough to extend the program for one year, McAleer said Project Bread is going to continue to push for legislation next cycle that would make free meals for all students permanent, replicating models in California and Maine.
“Food assistance has been a lifeline for families,” McAleer said. “For families to know that they can send their kids to school, and that they don’t have to worry about the cost of providing a meal, it’s been a huge economic relief for families.”
Before his freshmen year, Addario Miranda worried about how he would to pay for school meals at Innovation Academy Charter School. But the federal free school meal program relieved that stress for him.
“You have to focus on your education, and something that can distract a student from that is being hungry,” he said. “If those needs aren’t met, either the student will act out, the student will not be on their best level, [and] students can fall asleep in class because of the lack of nutrition that they’re being provided.”
Miranda, now a sophomore, advocates alongside Project Bread for all students to have access to free meals. While he is happy to see lawmakers move the one-year extension forward, Miranda said he is ready “to fight for it to be a forever thing.”
Statewide, an estimated 20 percent of families with children struggle with food insecurity, meaning they lack reliable access to enough nutritious, affordable meals. One in four of the children in those families did not qualify for free or reduced price school meals in 2019 under federal income guidelines, according to Project Bread.
If Baker signs off on the funds, the money would ensure 400,000 students statewide, who would not otherwise qualify for free school meals, continue to have access to free school lunch and breakfast for the next year. Though Massachusetts is one of the most expensive places to live in the US, districts here must use the same income guidelines as everywhere else to determine who can eat for free. Under the federal guidelines, a family of four with annual income of $51,338 or less qualifies for reduced-price lunch, and a family of four with annual income of $36,075 or less qualifies for free lunch.
Patrick Van Cott, a longtime food service director in Plymouth Public Schools, said the percentage of students who ate lunch at school drastically rose once students were provided free lunch — from 49 percent prior to the pandemic to 80 percent now. Other districts said they also saw similar surges in school lunch participation.
“Hungry students can’t learn,” Cott said. “If we can eliminate that, and concentrate time on learning, I think that’s the most important part, and parents don’t have to worry about getting them out the door because they know that a breakfast is going to be available and they know that a lunch will be available and they don’t have to have any money in their pockets.”
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 said student participation during lunch this last year was “through the roof” with about 68 percent of 2,200 students joining.
Grazioso added that having the free lunch program is significant because they’ve been able to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables in the program through the higher reimbursements. If the districts continue to get the free meals, they would also be able to afford to keep existing food service staff and potentially hire more people.
“I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she said, adding that getting the state funding will help tremendously since the cost of food the district pays has not changed. “I just feel like we can move forward in such a positive way right now.”
Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Adria Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.