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Children’s advocates want universal free school lunches to continue

Originally posted on The Boston Herald.

Advocates are calling on state lawmakers to extend free meals at schools, a program that came into place during the pandemic and is even more important now with food insecurity rates even higher than before COVID hit.

“One of the hard lessons of the pandemic is that it showed just how important school meals are for children and their families,” said Erin McAleer, president and CEO of Project Bread, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides food to hungry families in Massachusetts.

Initially backed by Congress, the latest budget from Capitol Hill does not include funding for the Universal Free School Meals program, which lawmakers had approved after the pandemic knocked out what is often the only source of food many youngsters have, namely the meals they can get at school.

With the federal program set expire [sic] on June 30, advocates are asking the state lawmakers to step in and make universal school breakfast and lunch permanent.

“School meals ease the financial burden on families that are really feeling the squeeze when they have to feed their children and pay for rent and electricity,” said Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, executive director of the Children’s Health Watch, a research program headquartered at Boston Medical Center. “If families are financially strapped, that’s a huge support. And if all youngsters receive free meals, it eliminates the stigma many would feel if they were the only ones receiving free food.”

The meals have been a critical resource for the one in five households with children and one in three households of color, McAleer said.

Last month, House lawmakers on Beacon Hill approved a budget proposal that includes $110 million to extend free school breakfast and lunch. While the provision would not be permanent, it would extend the program for the next school year.

The Senate has yet to approve a budget proposal of its own. Senate President Karen Spilka did not return calls or emails Thursday.

If the provision passes both branches, 400,000 Massachusetts students would continue to have access to free school meals in the upcoming school year, McAleer said.

Research shows that access to free food reduces anxiety, improves test scores and helps keep struggling families afloat, Ettinger de Cuba said.

“If the Senate and House both approve one-year extensions of the program,” she said, “we’ll definitely keep fighting to make the extension permanent.”