BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts has joined a small but growing number of states adopting universal free school meals programs.
Spending for the program was included in an overdue $55.98 billion state budget signed into law by Democratic Gov. Maura Healey on Wednesday. The budget covers the 2024 fiscal year that began July 1.
The budget includes spending on schools, child care, workforce development, public transit, housing, climate resiliency and other key areas that will help make Massachusetts more affordable, competitive and equitable, said Healey, signing her first budget as governor.
The budget will also make community college free for students aged 25 and older, expand grants for early education and care providers, increase funding for apprenticeships and other workforce development programs, and dedicate one percent of the budget to energy and the environment for the first time, she added.
About $172 million in permanent funding is also included in the budget to provide universal school meals for public school students in kindergarten through high school.
Healey called the school lunch program “an investment in childhood nutrition that’s also removing a source of stress from our schools and our homes.”
The meals programs will save families about $1,200 per student, per year, Senate President Karen Spilka said.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano, a fellow Democrat, said that as a former schoolteacher he saw firsthand the importance of ensuring that children have access to food during the school day.
“The school lunch program is something I’m extremely proud of,” said Mariano who taught school for 12 years and served on a local school committee. “I know the stresses of being in the classroom and seeing kids come in from the projects hungry, falling asleep at their desks because they haven’t eaten since lunch the day before.”
Mariano said he sees the program as part of a larger effort to target childhood hunger.
As of July, at least seven states — California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont — have established optional or mandatory universal school meal programs for schools participating in national school lunch and school breakfast programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Six states mandate district participation and pay for the programs through general revenues or education funds. Colorado doesn’t mandate district participation and funds universal meals through a voter-passed tax measure that reduces income tax deductions for households earning $300,000 or more.
Some states began looking for ways to create universal meals programs after a federal pandemic-era program that provided free meals for all public school students ended last year.
Ensuring that all student have access to lunches helps break down the stigma of receiving free meals, said activists who have pushed for the change.
“Universality means every kid has the food they need, no questions asked,” said Erin McAleer, president of the nonprofit Project Bread, who helped lead the push in Massachusetts. “Eliminating labels of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is long overdue. This milestone transforms a system that has been broken for decades.”
For the first time, the Massachusetts budget also incorporates an estimated $1 billion in projected new revenue generated from the voter-approved “millionaire tax” amendment to the state constitution. The budget splits the new revenue between education and transportation initiatives.
Healey said she also issued more than $200 million in vetoes to the budget delivered to her desk by state lawmakers.
Fellow Democrats, who hold overwhelming majorities in both the Massachusetts House and Senate, will have the chance to override the vetoes if they want.