Public school students in Massachusetts are set to get a free breakfast and lunch after the state implemented a new 4 percent tax on the state’s wealthiest residents. Massachusetts is the eighth U.S. state to make free school meals permanent.
“[F]ree universal school meals will literally change lives, full stop,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), said in a statement. “No child in Massachusetts will ever have to wonder how to get through the school day on an empty stomach.”
Around 26 percent of children in the state are food insecure, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. Food insecurity rates are higher for Black and Hispanic residents and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. A report by the Greater Boston Food Bank found that one in three households experienced a lack of consistent access to adequate food in 2022.
“Right now 26 percent of families with children in Massachusetts are food insecure. And when you take a look across those families, one in four of them don’t qualify for free or reduced pricing meals,” Jennifer Lemmerman, the vice president of public policy at anti-hunger group Project Bread, told WBUR. “They make too much, but they’re still struggling to put food on the table.”
Last year, Massachusetts voters approved a constitutional amendment that imposed a 4 percent surtax on individuals whose annual income exceeds $1 million. Supporters of the ballot initiative included a coalition of labor unions, community organizations and religious groups.
“We would not be where we are today without the voices and activism of thousands of advocates and organizations, who made it clear that feeding our kids must be a statewide priority,” Erin McAleer, president and CEO of Project Bread said in a statement. “We are grateful to all of our partners across the state and in the Legislature who enabled this victory.”
The tax went into effect this year and will account for $1 billion of the state’s $56 billion fiscal budget for 2024. About $524 million of the expected $1 billion in new tax revenue will be used for education, including providing free school lunches, expanding child care access and providing financial aid for college students.
Gov. Maura Healey has called the school lunch program “an investment in childhood nutrition that’s also removing a source of stress from our schools and our homes.” Research has shown that food insecurity can have a detrimental effect on a child’s learning. Children who are hungry are more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, experience developmental impairments in areas like language and motor skills, and have more social and behavioral problems.
“There is no doubt that a child who grows up without adequate nutrition will face significant barriers to academic achievement,” Carinne Deeds, policy associate at the American Youth Policy Forum wrote in 2015. “The various physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive costs of food insecurity make it extremely difficult for these students to reach their full potential.”
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) has insisted that Congress follow suit and implement universal free school meals across the country for K-12 students. In May, Pressley and McGovern introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023, a measure that would provide free breakfast, lunch and dinner to students.
“In one of the richest nations in the world, no child should ever go hungry, and including universal meals in schools is a step in the right direction towards addressing America’s hunger crisis,” Pressley said in a statement. “Congress must follow suit and make this a reality for every child who calls America home.”
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