State lawmakers will consider a bill implementing free breakfast and lunch meals for all public school students as the number of starving children skyrockets with economic problems linked to a pandemic.
“The main barriers preventing children from getting school meals are cost and stigma,” said Erin McAleer, free meals advocate and president of the nonprofit Project Bread. “Universal school meals eliminate the costs, and when every child benefits, it eliminates the stigma. “
The number of hungry households with children has almost doubled since the pre-pandemic times, according to census data. Before COVID-19, about 8.9% of households with children struggled with the costs of food. In October, that number jumped to 16.6%.
For McAleer, the problem is personal. She grew up in a single parent family in Massachusetts and remembers hearing her own mother discuss food anxiety on the phone.
“There are people across the state like this. A lot of people might know they are having a hard time paying their bills, but they might not know they could ask for help – that help is available to them, ”she said. .
Governor Charlie Baker enacted a bill in 2021 providing free meals to all students in certain eligible districts, but it is not a statewide program. The bill introduced Tuesday in Beacon Hill, a universal school meals law, would mean that any child in any cafeteria at a Massachusetts public school would bypass the payment system altogether, whether the school is in Lawrence or at Wellesley.
Kids today rely on a tiered payout program that ranges from full meals to free meals.
“The analogy I often use is that when a child falls and scratches their knee, we don’t have a tiered system for a bandage. We just want to stop the bleeding, ”McAleer said.
The proposed program, which has received strong support from state lawmakers, would have an annual price tag of around $ 100 million, mostly supported by federal funding, McAleer said. State funding would supplement some of the food, but supporters of the bill hope that funding Congress through the Build Back Better plan could shoulder much of the financial burden.
If lawmakers passed the bill, Massachusetts would join Maine and California in providing free universal meals in public schools.
Boston Public School teacher Jennifer Amendola said the effects of children without proper nutrition are apparent in the classroom.
“Children come to school hungry every day. When they don’t have food it really affects their learning, ”she said. “It’s hard to think of math when they’re worried about meeting their basic needs. “
According to research compiled by Project Bread from the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, students who eat school meals have higher test scores, graduation rates, and a higher likelihood of going to college. students.