Universal free school meals should be permanent in Massachusetts

Gov. Healey should embrace the Legislature's move on behalf of a program that's working wonders

AS GOV. MAURA HEALEY reviews the budget sent to her by the state Legislature, families and schools across Massachusetts anxiously await news of the fate of funding of school meals for all students. Food insecurity affects 1 in 5 households with children in Massachusetts. Impacted students, families, and schools are eager to learn whether the state will continue to position our public schools to play a critical role in addressing the food insecurity crisis in the coming school year and beyond.

At Marblehead Community Charter Public School (MCCPS), we have witnessed first-hand the impact of free school meals for all students, also known as universal school meals. While Marblehead is often thought of as an affluent community, the truth is that food insecurity impacts every community, transcending zip codes and affecting families in every corner of the Commonwealth.

We certainly know this to be true in Marblehead. MCCPS’s food pantry, founded in the wake of the pandemic to support both our school’s families and the broader community, is frequented by many, all of whom express overwhelming gratitude, and many of whom express embarrassment that they need to request assistance.

School meals are a critical source of nutrition for many children, not only supporting their short-term learning and physical activity, but also contributing to their long-term academic, physical, and emotional well-being. For some children, school meals account for over half of their daily calories, making school meals essential to overall health and development.

Before the introduction of universal school meals, many families in need – at MCCPS and across the Commonwealth – did not qualify for free or reduced-price meals due to barriers created by the required paperwork and the stigma associated with a family’s economic status. The implementation of a universal school meals program over the past few years dramatically changed this dynamic. At MCCPS, the number of students accessing breakfast nearly tripled, and nearly twice as many students participated in school lunch. Lines for lunch became so long that we had to create an additional lunch period to accommodate all of our students. The impact on MCCPS students has been profound; all students now have access to nutritious, homemade meals without the burden of stigma and they are better prepared to start the day physically and mentally.

We are grateful that the Legislature stepped in to extend free school meals through the 2022-2023 school year when the federal government’s funding ceased, and funded the continuation of the program in the budget that now sits on the governor’s desk. When parents know their children are nourished at school, they can focus on other aspects of their education and well-being, creating a positive ripple effect throughout our communities.

With the stigma of free meals removed, children are embracing the opportunity to enjoy nutritious, homemade meals prepared with care and love. Our scratch kitchen at MCCPS takes pride in the food that we prepare for our students, incorporating fresh produce and herbs from our campus garden. Whether it’s pasta day featuring our homemade pesto, marinara, and focaccia, or BBQ day featuring hamburgers and all-beef hot dogs grilled in the open air outside our kitchen, our students appreciate the effort we put into providing them with quality meals that set them up for a strong day of learning.

If state funding were to end, MCCPS would continue to provide meals to students that need them, no matter what. We will never turn a student away who needs a hot, nutritious meal. We will not let children go hungry; it profoundly impacts their ability to learn and grow. Instead, without the necessary funding, we would find ourselves reverting to a system in which meal debt accumulates, impacting the financial resources we have available for other essential school programs.

Permanently funding universal school meals presents an opportunity to make permanent an innovation that is working – one that is equitable and focused on nourishing our children with quality school meals. This program will provide much-needed support to all families facing food insecurity, no matter what community they live in, and create a positive and inclusive learning environment for all students.

As we continue to advocate in partnership with a large coalition of schools, organizations, and individuals, we are grateful to the Legislature for including universal schools in their budget, and we urge the governor to approve this critical funding.

Guaranteeing school meals for all is not just a temporary fix; it is a significant step towards ending childhood hunger in our state. By investing in the well-being and nutrition of our children today, we are building a healthier, stronger, and more prosperous future for Massachusetts – one in which no child goes hungry and every student has the opportunity to thrive, academically and beyond.

Stephanie Brant is the interim head of school at Marblehead Community Charter Public School. Danette Russo is the director of food services at Marblehead Community Charter Public School, where she has worked since 2012.