By Erin McAleer, President, Project Bread
March 12, 2021
Like many parents in Massachusetts, Rebecca Wood of Revere was struggling to get by on a tight budget well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Living in an area with some of the highest costs of living in the country, she faced difficult economic decisions every day. And, though she struggled financially, Rebecca’s income was just above the eligibility cutoff to qualify for reduced-price meals for her eight-year-old daughter. When the pandemic shut down many parts of the economy, the situation for her, like so many parents, became even more precarious. She described her situation as feeling like she was in a boat with a small hole in it.
She’s not alone. Too many people in our state were struggling to meet their most basic of human needs—food—even before COVID-19 disrupted the lives and incomes of hundreds of thousands. In the wake of the pandemic, one in five households with children are now food insecure in Massachusetts, with Black and Latino families experiencing that at nearly double the rate of White families. The impact of not reliably having enough to eat is real and lasting, with children being particularly vulnerable. Even short periods of food insecurity are associated with poorer health outcomes, lower academic achievement, and a negative impact on financial well-being later in life.
Food insecurity is often born out of economic inequities that leave communities of color, immigrant communities, those with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations getting the very short end of the stick. This was the case prior to COVID-19 and the pandemic has only served to exacerbate pervasive racial inequities, leading to especially high rates of hunger in communities of color (see our 2020 analysis, coproduced with Children’s HealthWatch and Boston Indicators, here). We also know from past economic downturns that these communities will face the longest road to recovery even after the pandemic ends.
Overall rates of food insecurity have doubled in our state and households with children are hit the hardest. School meals through the National School Lunch Program have the potential to reach all students. They are a key line of defense in the fight against food insecurity and a vital lifeline for parents across the state.
School meals are a critical source of nutrition for many children and can account for roughly half of a child’s daily calories. School meals help kids learn and engage in the short term, and thrive academically, physically, and emotionally in the long term. School meals also establish lifelong healthy eating habits that can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, along with the costs associated with these diseases.
Conversely, when kids are hungry at school, they struggle to learn. Hungry kids cannot concentrate, have lower academic achievement, suffer cognitive and developmental impairments, exhibit more behavioral problems, have more absences, visit the nurse more often, and are at higher risk of obesity. Inconsistent or unreliable food access is a generational pattern, and it sustains the cycle of poverty.
But before the COVID-related school shutdowns, more than half of students who could benefit from school meals weren’t eating them. In October 2019, only 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals actually ate both school breakfast and lunch. While there are many reasons for this, two of the most common barriers that stop children from participating in school meals are: 1) the cost of purchasing meals (for kids not eligible for free meals); and 2) the stigma of being singled out as needing assistance.
Despite these challenges, recent years have seen important progress toward making school meals more available and accessible in Massachusetts. Almost 500,000 kids in Massachusetts rely on free or reduced-price meals, and there are tens of thousands more, like Rebecca’s family, who live just beyond the threshold for assistance. But when schools closed in the spring of 2020, pandemic-related federal waivers made school meals available to every child, including Rebecca’s daughter. For Rebecca, this was exactly the kind of help that made a real difference. As she puts it, “Free school meals gave me breathing room. I now have more money for my daughter’s clothing or the electric bill.”
Prior to making school meals available to all during the pandemic, a new program had expanded free school meals some schools and districts in Massachusetts—the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to allow schools with high levels of need to offer free school meals to all students, regardless of income. With all kids receiving free meals in these schools, there’s been no need for individual kids to disclose their free or reduced-price lunch status in the cafeteria, greatly reducing stigma. Currently, just over 100 districts in the Commonwealth participate in this federal program, whether district-wide or at select schools. Through CEP, Massachusetts has made significant headway toward ending cost and stigma in the school cafeteria, but we need to take the next step and ensure that no child faces these barriers.
As of October 2019, more than one in three public school students in Massachusetts attended a school with a School Meals for All policy. The remaining 65 percent either pay a fee that they may or may not be able to afford, or they must prove their need for assistance and potentially face stigma in the cafeteria in order to access school meals. In 2018, 27 percent of children experiencing food insecurity in Massachusetts did not qualify for free or reduced-price meals through school meals programs.
The current crisis provides an opening to build on this momentum—we should take the final step and make school breakfast and lunch universally available for free statewide. The Feed Kids coalition, led by Project Bread, is a new campaign seeking to pass School Meals for All legislation. This bill will require all Massachusetts schools to make school breakfast and lunch available to all students at no charge to the student or their family. School Meals for All would maximize federal reimbursements by increasing participation and making use of existing federal options for universal free meals. The remaining cost would be covered by the Commonwealth, representing an investment in student health and education. Since some of the cost of universal school meals would be paid by the federal government, though, this is a uniquely cost-effective investment that we can make at the state level.
By enacting School Meals for All, we have an opportunity to take a critical step toward ending childhood hunger in our state by ensuring that every student who wants or needs a school breakfast or lunch can receive it—at no cost to their family and with no requirement to sign up or provide income or other information.
Just as no student is required to pay fees at public schools when they enter the classroom, borrow a library book, or visit the school nurse—there should be no financial barrier in the school cafeteria. School Meals for All reimagines the school food system that we all know, the one that separates children into categories and requires them to prove their need, the one we will return to post-pandemic if the state legislature does not act.