Massachusetts Takes a Bite Out of Hunger with Universal Free School Meals

“Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.” These wise words from Norman Vincent Peale have never been truer, especially when it comes to ensuring every child in the school system is nourished and ready to learn. In a giant leap for the children of Massachusetts, lawmakers in the state have given a nod to a budget proposal that demands free meals for all K-12 students in public schools. A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic, this program has proven its worth and is now set to become permanent.

Massachusetts is stepping into line as the eighth state in the nation to permanently establish universal free school meals, joining the ranks of California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Vermont, and Michigan. With Democratic Governor Maura Healey expected to sign the budget into law, this initiative takes a stand against child hunger and supports better academic outcomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave birth to a federal program that allowed public schools to provide all students with free school meals. However, when federal funding dried up amid GOP opposition, states like Massachusetts took it upon themselves to keep the initiative alive, pledging state dollars to the cause.

This monumental move hasn’t come without the tireless efforts of thousands of advocates and organizations, like Massachusetts anti-hunger group Project Bread, pushing for child nutrition to be a statewide priority. The new budget earmarks $171.5 million for this universal free school meal initiative. It’s not just an act of compassion, but a strategic move linked to positive outcomes such as decreased child hunger and improved academic performance.

The tangible benefits are seen in the numbers. Because of this extension, October 2022 saw an additional 80,000 students in the state having lunch compared to October 2019 in schools that were not previously serving universal free meals. Imagine that. Eighty thousand children who were better equipped to learn and engage.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) are among the loudest voices pushing for this initiative. McGovern applauded the move, emphasizing its life-changing potential, while Pressley urged Congress to follow Massachusetts’ lead. After all, in one of the wealthiest nations globally, no child should go hungry. They’re pushing for the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023, which would provide free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack to all students from preschool to high school. The bill is currently awaiting a vote in the House and the Senate.

So, while a group of House Republicans is set against free school meals, Massachusetts stands tall, proving that it values the nourishment and wellbeing of its children above partisan politics. The promise of the United States should indeed be that no child goes hungry in any school. Massachusetts is making that promise a reality, and it’s time for the rest of the nation to follow suit.