BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–While lawmakers wait for Gov. Maura Healey to file promised legislation funding another year of universal school meals, a Haverhill Democrat seeking a permanent extension pitched the program as a way to tackle one of the governor’s top goals: affordability.
Rep. Andy Vargas told administration officials Monday that in addition to keeping students well-fed and better prepared for classes, the availability of free meals in schools has also put a sizable chunk of change back into parents’ pockets. “I think it’s right in line with the governor’s goals around affordability as well. We know that this is saving families about $1,200 a year per kid, which is huge,” Vargas said at a Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing, noting that Healey “has placed a huge emphasis on affordability in the commonwealth.”
Massachusetts was one of just five states to deploy its own dollars to keep offering free in-school meals for all students after federal waivers expired in June. The original $110 million allotment was not enough, however, and lawmakers have advanced legislation to inject $65 million more to cover the rest of the school year.
Vargas, who filed a bill that would make the option permanent, said more than 80,000 students are now eating meals in school, about 30,000 more than lawmakers anticipated when they rolled out the program. “Many of those [are] in districts where they previously qualified for free or reduced-price lunch but weren’t eating and now are because the stigma has been removed, which is really exciting,” he said.
Healey plans to propose another year of money for the program in a forthcoming supplemental budget, which Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler said he believes will be “filed at some point this week.”
When Vargas asked Healey’s education deputies why she did not include that funding in the fiscal 2024 annual budget, Tutwiler said he thinks it “has something to do with the speed of the dollars being available for districts for planning for next year.”
Top Democrats in control of the House and Senate generally do not complete their work on an annual state budget until the summer months, in many cases finalizing the spending plan after the fiscal year has already started.