Less than a month into the school year, hundreds of thousands of students across Massachusetts are taking advantage of universal free breakfasts and lunches, keeping them more attentive throughout the day, officials say.
This is the first year the state Legislature is providing universal free meals to Bay State schools permanently, a program officials say is a major relief from what they describe as a “broken system.”
Waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture brought flexibility to districts during the pandemic, allowing them to provide students with meals at no cost. But federal breakfast and lunch programs resumed last year for the first time since pre-pandemic.
Massachusetts families, however, don’t need to worry about spending money on school meals this year, as the state budget includes about $172 million in permanent funding to provide universal free breakfasts and lunches for public school students in kindergarten through high school.
The Quincy school district has seen a 25% increase in breakfasts and lunches provided to students so far, according to Superintendent Kevin Mulvey, who joined Gov. Maura Healey, Speaker Ron Mariano and other officials to tout the state’s commitment at Snug Harbor Elementary School.
“This monumental change has given us the opportunity to end child hunger right here in our own community which is amazing,” Mulvey said. “The additional state funds will help us improve the overall quality and freshness of our meals which is extremely important, and it allows us to focus on buying locally and procure sustainable food and paper products.”
State funds are covering the cost of one lunch and breakfast, including fruit, vegetables and whole grains, in accordance with regulations from the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Students must pay if they want an extra meal on the same day.
Massachusetts became the eighth state to establish an optional or mandatory universal free school meal program, following the lead of Vermont, Maine, New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, California and Colorado, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Mariano taught 12 years in Quincy schools. He remembers students putting their head down on their desks at 8 in the morning due to exhaustion, mostly from not having breakfasts before coming to school.
“There will be times when we’ve got to dig for the money, make no mistake about it. It will be a challenge to keep this commitment,” he said, “but you do have my word … we’ll make it work.”
On any given day during the pandemic, roughly 80,000 more children purchased breakfasts and lunches at Massachusetts schools compared to pre-pandemic, said Jen Lemmerman, vice president of public policy at Project Bread.
Even with more children eating school-provided breakfast and lunches, Project Bread President and CEO Erin McAleer does not foresee supply chain issues creating challenges for districts in securing food on a daily basis.
“Having it be permanent, there’s actually no stress because schools are really able to plan, and they know for it,” she told the Herald. “They now have better anticipatory numbers of kids participating.”