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UPDATE July 19, 2022: The Massachusetts Legislature has submitted its final budget 18 days into the fiscal year. The compromise budget includes $110 million to extend the program that allowed for universal school lunches for students, regardless of household income.
The budget also includes at least $700,000 for Project Bread, a non-profit dedicated to combatting food insecurity among students. The money will be used to expand summer food service outreach and school breakfast outreach.
The budget won the approval of all 40 Senators and 153 Representatives, and now heads to Gov. Baker’s desk for final approval.
WESTFORD — One of the few remaining COVID-era programs for families — free school lunches for students regardless of income — expired on June 30.
Free school lunch waivers expire
Before the child nutrition waivers originally funded through the CARES Act in March 2020, children in families whose incomes were at or below 130% of the federal poverty level were eligible for free school meals. Families whose incomes were between 130% and 185% were eligible for reduced-priced meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.
According to Westford Public Schools Food Service Director Colleen Wallace, approximately 7% of Westford students benefit from free and reduced lunch, which is approximately 327 of the 4,668 students enrolled in Westford Public Schools.
The Keep Kids Fed Act, the most recent childhood nutrition legislation at the federal level, extends some of the dozens of waivers, but it does not extend the one that made school breakfasts and lunches free to all students regardless of their families’ income.
Legislation is currently pending on Beacon Hill to extend free meals, with the House including a one-year extension of school meals for all in its budget proposal.
“We hope that legislation to continue with universal free lunches will pass this summer but we want to be prepared and give all families time to prepare for this change in the event this does not occur,” Wallace wrote in an email to families.
Food insecurity remains high in MA
Prior to the pandemic, Census data shows household food insecurity in Massachusetts sat at approximately 8.2%. At the peak two months into the pandemic, approximately 19.6% of households in Massachusetts were deemed food insecure.
A combination of increased unemployment benefits, stimulus money and the expanded child tax credits for parents saw the number of food insecure households drop to 10.7% in April of 2021.
As of March 2022, 16.4% of Massachusetts households remain food insecure as pandemic-era assistances programs expire with no extension in sight.
Lawmakers, such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. James McGovern have argued that allowing the program to expire is “simply unconscionable.”
“In one of the richest nations in the world, it is an absolute disgrace that millions of children are left to struggle with food insecurity every day,” they wrote in a joint news release.
Families encouraged to apply for free and reduced meals
Families must now apply for free and reduced meals for their students. The district is encouraging all families, regardless of income, to submit the application.
Families receiving SNAP will be automatically enrolled and notified by mail after a direct certification with the state database, according to Wallace.
WPS is looking to alert families ahead of the school year to enroll all families who are eligible as quick as possible.
“Obviously, this could change. We do not have a definite answer from the state yet,” Wallace told WestfordCAT. “There is legislation pending but we have to move forward with the previous guidelines. We’re not counting on anything changing yet.”
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