By Katherine Hapgood
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — At the outset of the COVID-19 upheaval, federal lawmakers approved a policy in which all students received free breakfast and lunch, to help combat rising food insecurity.
But now that program is slated to expire over the summer, and food security advocates are warning of an impending “perfect storm” that could affect hundreds of thousands of students in the state.
In fact, passage of a universal school meals bill is “critical” in the wake of the impending June 30 end of the federal program that has provided breakfast and lunch to students, particularly in MetroWest, according to Rep. Jack Lewis, D-Framingham.
The Legislature’s Committee on Education extended its deadline for action until June 1 because it was “awaiting federal guidance on the federal student nutrition waiver,” said Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, the bill’s sponsor. However, he added, “it seems evident now that the federal government will not be extending this program.”
Erin McAleer, president and CEO of Project Bread, said that while the Massachusetts Congressional delegation is “supportive” of extending universal school meals for all students in the state, there is “no viable path forward” without state action.
When the federal program operated by the USDA ends June 30, Lewis estimates that “Massachusetts children will lose access to about five million summer meals.”
According to Project Bread, 65 fewer local communities will be able to participate in this program.
“We cannot let this barrier between kids and healthy meals go back up; if Congress won’t act, then Massachusetts must,” Vargas said.
Some school districts, including Framingham and Marlborough, will be able to revert to Community Eligibility Provision, thanks to a bill passed in 2021. But the provision, which allows schools that meet specific criteria to serve free breakfast and lunch, is not an option for all schools.
For instance, while Framingham will be eligible for these CEP meals, Ashland will not, Lewis said.
“Those food-insecure children one town over lack that same access to something as vital as breakfast or lunch at school,” he said.
According to McAleer, “MetroWest is an example of a region that’s going to be really detrimentally impacted if the state doesn’t take action.”
Massachusetts still has “incredibly high rates of food insecurity,” she said. However, many programs that were “really critical in both alleviating but also preventing hunger for many households” are ending, which is why Project Bread requests that the state “indefinitely extends Universal Free School Meals.”
“We must do more at the local level, state level, and federal level to meet those needs,” Lewis said.
According to Project Bread, 67% of Massachusetts schools will no longer be able to provide free school meals to all students without the passing of the state legislation. Similar bills have been passed in Maine and California.
“While the feds are not doing it, the state absolutely can,” McAleer said.
This article originally appeared in the MetroWest Daily News.