States

Massachusetts Joins Short List of States Providing Free School Meals to All

By Caitlyn Meisner — August 16, 2023 4 min read
Students at the Maurice J. Tobin K-8 School in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood eat lunch on Sept. 4, 2013.
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Massachusetts has become the eighth state in the nation to permanently provide universal free school meals to its public school children.

The Bay State’s move brings the total of students who now have access to free school meals across the country to nearly 9 million.

The movement among states to permanently allow access to free meals to any student grows out of pandemic-era waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2020. That allowed any student across the country—regardless of family-income level—to access free meals at school with the help of federal funds. But those funds expired in June 2022, leaving states to decide whether to carry on with open-access programs or return to their pre-pandemic policies. Other states who decided to carry on with these programs are: California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont.

“These are programs that are already being implemented,” said Alexis Bylander, a senior child-nutrition analyst at the Food Research & Action Center, an advocacy group. “It’s just picking up the cost for kids that don’t already receive free school meals.”

The estimated annual price tag for the federal government for the program last year was reportedly $29 billion, up from $18 billion in 2019. That cost is likely to decrease, as states take on more of the burden.

In Massachusetts, the decision to expand school meal access was approved by Democratic Gov. Maura Healey last week after it passed in the state legislature with major bipartisan support.

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiler said in an email statement that the new state funding will allow students to focus on what matters: their education.

“Food security is essential for the health and well-being of our students,” Tutwiler wrote. “Aligned with our goals to stabilize, heal, and transform our education system, this funding will ensure that students can focus on their classes in school, instead of where their next meal is coming from.”

Moving away from the old system

The National School Lunch Program, which has been around since the 1940s, “was always broken,” said Erin McAleer, the president and CEO of Project Bread, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit focused on eradicating hunger. “The old system relied on people to submit paperwork and to verify income to make their kids eligible. We heard stories over and over again of students … who didn’t want to submit the paperwork and be labeled.”

Bylander said she, too, was excited by the opportunity to get rid of the old system, with its tiered pricing system and potential for stigmatizing children.

“When you have kids paying different prices, it can create problems, and one of the biggest ones is stigma in the cafeteria,” Bylander said. “All of that really changes when you provide free meals to everyone, just like you do access to classes, teachers, textbooks, and resources throughout the day.”

Bylander said universal access also ends the practice of “lunch shaming” students for unpaid school meal debt .

How states are coming up with the money

In Massachusetts, a new 4 percent tax on the state’s wealthiest residents will account for $1 billion of the state’s $56 billion total budget for next year. A portion of these funds will be used to provide universal free meals in public schools. The tax was approved by voters last year.

Massachusetts’ way of funding the new program differs from some other states’ payment methods. New Mexico has set aside $22 million in its state budget to accommodate free school meals, and Michigan has included $160 million in its state budget.

Bylander said the benefits of providing free meals to students is worth the cost . It “isn’t that significant when you think about how these meals allow kids to really get the most value out of other educational investments,” Bylander said.

Why free school meals matter

Regardless of whether children demonstrate a financial need for free meals, Bylander and Project Bread’s McAleer cited nutritional security as an essential aspect of universal free meals. Bylander said designated mealtimes with the entire class participating create a positive part of the school day.

“Even if students aren’t benefiting from the fact that meals are free directly, they benefit from the fact that it’s available to their peers,” Bylander said. “It only takes one student who is dysregulated and hungry to disrupt the whole classroom. It is a benefit to the whole school community that this is available to students.”

Bylander also said many things in the public school system are not means-tested, but access to food is.

“Even if your parents can afford to buy you your own tablet, the school provides one for you,” Bylander said. “You don’t ask, ‘Would kids have been able to afford to bring this in on their own?’ But we do that with meals, and meals are such a critical part of the day. I don’t think we can afford to do that anymore.”

Calling on other states to act

Forty-two states have yet to act to make universal school meals permanent in their state budgets. But dozens of states have bills introduced or working through the legislatures.

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