By Katherine Hapgood
Boston University Statehouse Program
Janice Watt, who runs the Foxboro public schools’ food program, has seen a big increase in the number of children taking advantage of the USDA Universal School Meals program, with participation growing from about 1,300 meals per day to about 1,800 this year.
It has grown enough that Watt increased her staff to 22 workers.
But as the program approaches its June 30 termination date, Watt fears it could mean taking a step back, both through a reduction in hours and by returning to the old pay-per-meal structure if the program isn’t renewed on the federal or state level.
“We’ve been able to focus on feeding kids, not chasing people for money,” she said.
The ability to provide free meals has been wonderful, she said. But now, she said, “It’s all very much up in the air,” adding that if the program is allowed to expire, the district will face higher food prices, lower reimbursements and lower participation.
Heather Baril, the food service director for North Attleboro public schools, said more than half of the students in the district participate in the program, up from 39% or 40% in 2019.
“Since we did the switch to universal school meals, everyone has gotten a chance to try it and liked all the fresh foods and vegetables,” she said. “(Now) we are kind of in limbo.”
Like in Foxboro and North Attleboro, public schools throughout Massachusetts are in limbo while national and state data reflect the increasing prevalence of food insecurity in the state, with rates in homes with children increasing to early pandemic-era percentages as some federal programs and waivers begin to “sunset,” according to Sarah Cluggish, chief program officer at Project Bread.
House and Senate bills, H.714 and S.314, to extend the national program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to every student with reimbursement to each participating school district, have been filed in the state Legislature with a July 1 start date. But the proposals remain in the Legislature’s Committee on Education and are unable to move until the national-level legislation is voted on, since the program is federally funded.
According to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey, food insecurity among Massachusetts households with school-aged children — defined as the disruption of food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money and other resources — rose from 12.5% in May 2021 to 21.4% in December 2021, in comparison to 23.6% in May 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.
“That’s why something like universal school meals is such a critical solution because families don’t have to think about it,” Cluggish said. “Their kids just go to school, they have free meals, they don’t have to register for anything.”
Food insecurity in households with children is more evenly distributed than most people think, Cluggish said, with more calls from Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline coming from the North Shore, South Shore and Greater Boston area, but not a stark difference. But, Cluggish said, this may not necessarily reflect need, but knowledge of the hotline and the main office’s location.
Language and awareness of the dozens of available federal food assistance programs like SNAP and P-EBT are barriers in combating food insecurity, according to Cluggish, and it can be overwhelming for lots of families.
Project Bread works to give families access to resources in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Education, especially due to the higher rates of food insecurity in households with children.
Between 25% and 30% of hotline callers to SNAP, the federal Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, are households with children, according to Project Bread. Among food insecure households with children, minority households remain disproportionately more food insecure, Cluggish said.
Statewide, Black and Latino households are experiencing the slowest recovery as the pandemic seems to wind down, she said.
Of the households with children experiencing food insecurity from July to December of last year, only 11.9% identify as white, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey.
“Knowing where to turn and where to find help can be overwhelming, particularly if English isn’t your first language,” Cluggish said.
Watt said she’s concerned some Foxboro families may fall through the cracks, having an income that’s too high to qualify for certain types of aid. “They are working but they are having trouble making ends meet,” she said.
A major task throughout the pandemic for the DOE has been helping to implement “the over 100 waivers offered by USDA to facilitate providing meals to students when they were learning remotely from home,” said Rob Leshin, director of the Office for Food and Nutrition Programs at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
DESE has been involved with discussions over the Universal Schools Meals bills.
“School meal participation is certainly up this school year, given that meals are free, so because participation is up, the assumption can be made that households are finding the free school meals to be helpful,” Leshin said.
According to DESE, school meal participation is up 15% compared to pre-pandemic, with more than 42 million meals served so far this school year.
Doug Dias, director of finance and operations at Marlboro Public Schools, said officials there have have found that students don’t often communicate openly about food insecurity because of fear of being stigmatized.
Universal School Meals not only eliminates stigma, Cluggish said, but also meet that immediate need of feeding the child, along with having a long-term impact of feeding a child over many years. “(It’s) making that investment in a student’s growth and educational opportunity,” Cluggish said.
Dias said Marlboro schools have experienced “a strong increase in participation” for Universal School Meals, with participation rates increasing by more than 10% at the high school level, and 3-5% at the elementary and middle school level on average.
Because of the number of low-income students in the district, and transportation as a potential barrier, the system worked to ensure meal continuity throughout the pandemic, providing approximately 400,000 meals while remote, Dias said.
DESE also found that the displacement of students that depend on school meals was the major issue, nutrition-wise, when schools closed back in 2020, Leshin said.
For now, the uncertainty about the future program has the food service directors playing a waiting game.
In Foxboro, one of Watt’s concerns is that, as the school year draws to a close, it’s time to solicit bids from vendors, and she doesn’t know what kind of prices she can commit to.
Baril, in North Attleboro, is already looking into other potential sources of state and federal funding.
“What I’m doing is re-evaluating all the numbers,” she said.
Families will have to know about the options available to them, she said.
“As soon as anything is official, we’ll start to get the word out,” Baril said.
Even if the program rules change, she said, she’s still hoping many families that have benefited from the free meals will be able to take part.
“I’m optimistic,” Baril said. “I’m being hopeful.”
This article originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle.