MA lawmakers debate continuing free school meals

The future of free meals for Massachusetts public school students is uncertain. Federal funds for universal free meals end with this school year, but the state Legislature may renew the program in this year’s budget.

The universal free meals program has meant a lot for families, staff, and administration at Nauset Public Schools, said Superintendent Brooke Clenchy.

“For families, there’s that security in knowing that your child is going to be fed no matter what,” Clenchy said. “For staff and administration, there’s also the sense of comfort and security in knowing that your children are eating, so when they come into your class, they have a full tummy and they’re ready to learn.”

A food service worker makes a free meal at Sandwich High School, in a 2020 photo.  Federal funds for universal free meals end with this school year, but the state Legislature may renew the program.

Cafeteria meals were made free for all students nationwide, regardless of family income, in March 2020 to help families through the pandemic. The program is now set to expire in June, and so far the federal government has taken no concrete steps to extend it.

The House’s FY2023 budget plan, passed last week, includes $ 110 million to continue free school meals for all, but it remains to be seen if that provision will make it into the Senate budget and through the conference committee negotiations. A separate bill to make the program permanent, filed last year by Sen. Sal DiDomenico, D-Everett, has not yet received a vote.

Clenchy said she would love to see the program continue, but without government money Nauset Public Schools wouldn’t have the funds to continue it.

Nauset Public Schools Superintendent Brooke Clenchy supports free meals for all students.  Without government assistance, though, the school district wouldn't have the money to continue the program on its own, Clenchy said.

If free school meals for all does not pass, some schools will still be able to provide all meals for free through the federally-funded Community Eligibility Provision by showing they have an adequate number of students eligible for free meals. Currently on Cape Cod four schools in the Barnstable school district and one school in the Dennis-Yarmouth school district participate.

Barnstable Public Schools saw a 10% increase in free meals served since the universal free meal program was implemented in 2020, said David Badot, the district’s food and nutritional director.

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