By Katherine Hapgood
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — As the USDA Universal School Meals program approaches its June 30 termination date, Massachusetts public schools remain in limbo, and national and state data reflect the increasing prevalence of food insecurity in the state.
Food insecurity rates in homes with children are increasing to early pandemic-era percentages as some federal programs and waivers begin to “sunset,” said Sarah Cluggish, Chief Program Officer at Project Bread.
Bills 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 Legislature with a July 1 start date. However, 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.
Even with the halt in state action, Cluggish said, “That legislation is still active, which is really exciting and important.”
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 Dec. 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 you’d 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.
Approximately 12% of calls for the hotline came from the MetroWest area, however, according to Cluggish, 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 security, according to Cluggish, and it can “be very 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. As of December 2021, 15.9% of households in the state are food insecure, according to the U.S. Census Household Survey, in comparison to 21.4% of households with children in the state experiencing food insecurity.
According to Project Bread, MetroWest is currently and projected to experience lower rates of food insecurity than the state average. Middlesex County and Worchester County are projected to have experienced child food insecurity in 2021 at 8.3% and 12.1%, respectfully. This is a 3.5% decrease for Middlesex and a 4.2% decrease for Worcester.
Between 25-30% of SNAP, the federal Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, hotline callers are households with children, according to Project Bread. Among food-insecure households with children, BIPOC households remain disproportionately more food insecure, according to Cluggish.
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 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.
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.
Districts like Marlborough Public Schools have found that “for fear of potential stigmas, students don’t often communicate openly about food insecurity,” said Doug Dias, the system’s Director of Finance and Operations.
Universal School Meals not only “eliminates stigma,” but also “meets that immediate need of feeding the child today,” along with also having “that long-term impact of feeding a child over many years and really making that investment in a student’s growth and educational opportunity,” Cluggish said.
According to Dias, Marlborough 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.
Due to 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 that took place when schools closed back in 2020,” Leshin said.
With the hopeful continuance of this program, Marlborough schools believe they “will continue seeing an increase in participation as parents and students become accustomed to having high-quality meals available for free at school,” Dias said.
In the Marlborough district, 57.5% of students are low-income, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education’s Population Report for the 2021-2022 school year. Because of their district’s needs, the system has been approved for the Community Eligible Provision program, which will allow the district to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, Dias said.
However, CEP does not reimburse the district at the same rate as the existing Universal Free Meals Program. The extension would be a “huge win for all districts and students,” Dias said.