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This year, students in Mass. will have access to free school meals. But how do we stop the stigma around hunger?

‘When families feel like they’re struggling to feed their children, there’s this sense of failure.’

First-grade students holding lunch trays at McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell. In July, Massachusetts lawmakers extended funding for free school meals for all students, regardless of household income, under a one-year expansion of a free federal school lunch program for the upcoming school year.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Parenting writing often focuses on food: breast-feeding versus bottle-feeding. How to sneak vegetables into snack food. New and exciting ways to serve chicken nuggets. Meal delivery services for busy parents on the go.

But there’s a hunger crisis happening nationwide, exacerbated by inflation, gas prices, and COVID-induced job loss. Here in Massachusetts, an estimated 19.8 percent of households with kids face food insecurity. According to statistics from Project Bread, a Boston nonprofit that works to end hunger in the state, 1 in 3 Black households with children and approximately 1 in 3 Latino/a households with children are food insecure. More than 1 million Massachusetts residents receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits; SNAP is the US government’s largest federal nutrition assistance program, wherein income-eligible people receive an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card that functions like a debit card at authorized food stores.


In July, Massachusetts lawmakers extended funding for free school meals for all students, regardless of household income, under a one-year expansion of a free federal school lunch program for the upcoming school year. The extension is a victory for sure. But when some kids opt for free meals and others don’t, it also emphasizes a deep financial divide. Meanwhile, because hunger is invisible — you can’t see who’s hungry and who isn’t, not really — it’s often brushed under the rug. Even well-meaning people grapple with finding the proper language around hunger.

Heading into a new school year, I talked to Sarah Cluggish, chief program officer at Project Bread, about destigmatizing food insecurity.

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What do you wish more families of school-aged children understood about food insecurity? What isn’t covered enough?

I wish families realized two or three things. First is that food insecurity is invisible. For many families, food insecurity doesn’t necessarily mean that a family is hungry all the time. Food insecurity means that they’re struggling financially to consistently and reliably access nutritious food. Every week, there’s this mental and stressful struggle to figure out: How am I going to feed my children? That might mean we’re going to have cereal a lot this week. It could mean that the adults in the house might be skipping some meals. It could mean that they might be having brunch, which could be breakfast and lunch as a combo, because they can’t really have separate meals. There’s a whole range of what food insecurity can mean.


The second thing is that it’s enormously stigmatizing. People will complain about how high their rent is or how much childcare costs right now, or inflation and gas prices. It’s really hard to talk about what a struggle it is to feed your family.

Why is food such a stigmatizing issue? People freely talk about housing prices being so high.

I think it’s a great question. I think that food is such an expression of caring and love, and it’s the way that we communicate with each other. I think, when families feel like they’re struggling to feed their children, there’s this sense of failure. I think it can feel like a very personal and emotional thing.

The other thing, too, is that food is often the last budgetary item that families are covering. So, usually, you’re trying to make sure that you’re paying your rent, and then you’re paying your utility bills or your childcare bill. Whatever you have left is what you’re putting towards food.


What role do you think communities and schools should or could play in alleviating food insecurity? I know that the legislation around free school meals helps — but what else could people do?

First, around the legislation, I think participating in school meals is something all of our children can do. I think it really helps to normalize the program. Participating in breakfast, participating in school lunch, not only helps to create that sense of community and joy, but it also helps to bring additional reimbursement and revenue into our school meals programs, which helps to allow our school meals programs to purchase higher-quality food. It creates that cyclical effect of improving the program all around and can reduce stigma.

That’s interesting. People might think, “Well, but I’m not entitled to that. Am I taking food away from somebody else?” There’s a lot of confusion over whether to do it.

That’s a great question. Right now, because the meals are universally free, schools are reimbursed at the same rate for every child who participates. So regardless if normally you’d be eligible for free meals or reduced price meals, or if you’d be considered a paid student, the school is receiving the same amount of federal reimbursement. The higher the participation rate, the more reimbursement the school receives for all of the meals that are eaten. We’re really encouraging as many students to participate in breakfast and lunch as possible.


OK. That’s one thing that families could do. What are some other ideas around reducing this stigma?

Encouraging your school social worker, your PTO, even the school nurse to have information about, for example, Project Bread’s food source hotline or making sure there’s information about other food resources available in multiple languages so that families who are in need can feel like there are multiple resources that are easily accessible and available.

What are some of those resources, especially for parents who might be reading and are feeling stretched? I’m thinking of families who might wonder if they qualify or if they meet a threshold.

On our hotline, we can walk through with a family to really help to break down and to help them understand that they aren’t taking away resources from other people and to understand what they may be eligible for or not eligible for. … Sometimes people aren’t comfortable going to a [food] pantry in their own community, and so they prefer to go somewhere else where they might not be recognized. Sometimes being able to access resources in another place is really important to them. Oftentimes, some programs do have restrictions, but for example, on our hotline, we know exactly who can travel where, programs that accept people from any community.

Can you talk a little bit about the impact of food insecurity on kids? What are the physical or mental health effects?

We know that kids who struggle with food insecurity struggle with learning. They struggle with absenteeism, with coming into school tardy. They struggle with their math scores. Those are the big three that they struggle with academically. And then they have health issues. Kids who are food insecure tend to suffer from iron deficiency. They have higher rates of asthma and higher rates of hospitalization.


Is that causation or correlation?

The biggest issue that we find is the unbelievable amount of stress on the household. It’s the unpredictability of food access. For example, with tardy-ism, we find that there’s a reduction in absenteeism and students being late when there’s a predictable breakfast program that’s served after the bell. When there’s reliable access to food, we notice an improvement in those academic indicators.

How could we improve our language around food insecurity? I’m wondering if kids might not even realize that they’re saying things that could be hurtful.

I think one of the issues that does come up for kids — it comes up for adults, too, so I certainly do not want to single out kids — is that a lot of times children who are overweight or struggle with obesity may also be food insecure. You may see a child eating food that you wouldn’t choose or you might not choose for your own child, but because you’re seeing them eat something out of context, you don’t know. Maybe they might be eating a bag of chips. That might be the only thing they’ve eaten today. I think judgment around what a child is eating and understanding that invisibility around children’s access to consistent, reliable, nutritious food is something that we have to be mindful of.

What could we be doing better or more of here in Massachusetts? I’m not asking you to write new policies, but ideally, what would happen?

Expansion of eligibility for SNAP and expansion of SNAP benefits would be my number one-policy dream.

But I remember a former director of our hotline once said that, if she could change one thing, it would be that she would eliminate stigma of food insecurity because so often families wait to call us until they’ve exhausted every resource they have. They have maximized their credit cards. They can’t ask another favor of a family member or a friend, and they are finally calling us out of complete desperation. Our hotline is open until 7 o’clock at night, and they’re calling us at 6:58 on a Friday or a Saturday, and the food pantries are closed for another couple days. They wait until that last moment, and we could have helped them so much sooner and so much earlier. We just wish that people didn’t feel so isolated and alone, and that we could make this an issue that could be talked about and discussed more openly.

So readers understand: Is going to a food pantry the same as using SNAP?

Generally, anybody can go to a food pantry. A food pantry may have some requirements, like you can only go once a month or you can only go once a week. Sometimes you do need to live in the community, but oftentimes you don’t. SNAP has an income and asset test. We can walk through that with someone and do a pre-screening application. There are many locations where you can purchase food with SNAP benefits, like a corner grocery store or any grocery store. Many farmer’s markets accept SNAP.

Before I let you go: I think that we might have a stereotype in this state or nationwide about who is food insecure and how it happens. So: Who is food insecure? Could you contextualize this for readers?

We really see it in all communities. Certainly we see higher rates of food insecurity among households with children, and we do see disproportionate rates of food insecurity of households with children in the Black community and Latino community, multiracial communities, due in large part to systemic racism. But we have seniors who call us. We have people who have lost their job or are struggling with COVID or who were really just living paycheck to paycheck and then inflation threw their whole budget off. We have had people whose commute was just perfectly lined up, and now, because of gas prices, they’re [food insecure].

Really, a lot of calls to our hotline start off with, “I never thought I’d call you,” or, “I was the one who used to volunteer at that food pantry and now I can’t believe I need a referral to go there.” It’s a wide range of people who call us, which is in part why I think it’s important for families and children to really be open to the possibilities that this can be more prevalent than we imagine.

For families who want to learn more about food insecurity: What do you recommend?

A great action item families can start with is watching the film “A Place At The Table.” Going further, we always recommend people participate in our annual Walk for Hunger each May to help raise awareness and funds at a family-friendly event, and we’ve also seen many young supporters who write letters to their local elected leaders and or start their own bake sale or fundraiser because they want to be part of the change.

Project Bread’s free, confidential hotline is 1-800-645-8333.

Kara Baskin can be reached at Follow her @kcbaskin.