In a week that might lead some — OK, a lot —– of us to despair at the state of our nation, a triumph closer to home: From now on, every kid in Massachusetts will get free meals at school.
A state spending plan agreed on by legislative leaders Monday makes permanent the eminently sensible, phenomenally successful experiment that began during the pandemic. The $172 million cost of the meals will be largely funded by the new surtax on incomes over $1 million. That means the onerous, senseless, three-tier lunch system we’ve taken as a given for decades — along with the stigma it slapped on our least lucky kids, and the endless red tape with which it burdened their educators — is history. Hallelujah!
“Family income shouldn’t affect the resources you get at a public school,” said Erin McAleer, the indefatigable head of Project Bread, the antihunger organization that led the effort for free school meals. “We don’t means-test families for books, and school buses, and Band-Aids from the nurse when a kid falls on the playground.”
So why food, when we’ve known forever how much hunger interferes with learning? And how badly the system we’ve had until recently has been working?
Before the pandemic, a family of four had to make less than $52,000 to get free or reduced price school meals, a ridiculously low cutoff in an expensive state such as ours. Even when families did qualify, not all of their kids were taking advantage because they were embarrassed to be seen as poor. And sorting out who qualifies for subsidized meals, and chasing payments from those who don’t, takes time that schools should spend on improving nutrition, not to mention learning.
“There is so much research out there that shows kids fed at school are less likely to go to the nurse and be tardy, and more likely to get better grades,” McAleer said.
A Syracuse University study found most dramatic academic improvements among children who did not previously qualify or sign up for subsidized meals. Other research found that school climate improved for everybody in places with universal free meals, as barriers between kids fell.
“The cost of the old way is astronomical,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Worcester Democrat and antihunger crusader. “Hungry kids don’t learn; lack of good nutrition means more kids getting diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, leading to costly medical treatments.”
It’s a no-brainer. Still, once Governor Maura Healey signs the bill into law, Massachusetts will be only the eighth state in the nation to provide universal free meals in schools.
And even here, it has taken years and an army of advocates to make it a reality. The pandemic showed us what was possible, after the federal government funded food for every school kid. The Massachusetts Legislature extended the free school food program for another year. Meantime, advocates set about building a movement, harnessing a growing constituency of families, educators, and health experts. Representative Andy Vargas of Haverhill and state Senator Sal DiDomenico of Cambridge introduced legislation to make the program permanent: Families shared their stories so that those on the fence understood, though one important person needed no convincing. A former public school teacher himself, Speaker Ron Mariano had seen the consequences of hungry school kids firsthand. They all persuaded the holdouts that there would be a political price to pay for returning to the old way.
“Hunger is a political condition,” McGovern said. “We can solve it, but we have lacked the political will. I’m so proud of everybody involved. I wish we could do this on a federal level.”
That will never happen as long as Republicans control the House.
So much of what ails us is a political condition. Our country seems set up to make life needlessly difficult for millions of families. In the richest nation on the planet, solving hunger requires only that most of us agree we can do better, and that we all win when the unluckiest of us get a little help.
And for the politicians who see compassion as a failing to be turned out of office. Until then, it’s good to live in Massachusetts.