BOSTON (State House News Service) – During her previous career as a third-grade teacher, Rep. Brandy Fluker Oakley always made a point to keep snacks in her classroom.
She knew that her students came to school hungry some days and did not have access to a meal once they got there, making it harder to focus on the lesson at hand. One student, Fluker Oakley recalled, would ask to be excused to go get a drink of water by saying he needed “oxygen for my brain.”
Her personal experience pushed her to cosponsor legislation that would permanently enshrine a pandemic-era universal school meals option in Massachusetts, and as social workers set out Tuesday to press other lawmakers to support the bill (H 603 / S 261), Fluker Oakley said the effects of the pilot program have been obvious.
“When you talk to school leaders, school teachers, any school-based professional across the commonwealth, they rave about the different effects they’re seeing for their students in terms of success knowing that everyone has access to a healthy meal,” the Dorchester Democrat told attendees at a virtual advocacy day hosted by the National Association of Social Workers’ Massachusetts chapter.
The House and Senate have both approved legislation injecting more money to keep the program running through the end of the current year, and Gov. Maura Healey sent them another spending bill that includes $171 million to fund an extension for the full 2023-2024 academic year.
Supporters of a permanent meals-for-all program say the pilot — originally funded by the federal government but currently covered by state money — has ensured that more than 80,000 Massachusetts students eat meals in school.
That effort has saved families an average of $1,200 per child, while removing the stigma for those who previously qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, backers say.
“By making free lunch available for all, that helps reduce some of the stigma and helps improve the self-worth we see in some of our lower-income students,” Fluker Oakley said.
NASW-MA included the permanent meals bill as one of four priorities its members will push Tuesday during meetings with lawmakers. Social workers also want lawmakers to approve bills dealing with licensure and training for the field (H 1253 / S 160), pretrial release or probation for substance use treatment (H 1391 / S 982), and a long-discussed sex education reform proposal often dubbed the Healthy Youth Act.
Nearly 70 lawmakers have cosponsored this session’s version of the bill (H 544 / S 268), which would require districts that offer sex education to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate materials that cover topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation, preventing dating violence, and consent.
The Senate has approved some form of the bill four times in the past eight years, but it has never gained traction in the House, despite strong pockets of support from Democrats in that chamber.
“This is supported and informed by many observations of social workers and other professionals in the field, and it empowers young people in Massachusetts to learn about their bodies and their most basic physiology in appropriate and safe classroom settings,” Fluker Oakley said at Tuesday’s virtual event. “It’s truly essential that all students, regardless of their background, identity, sexual orientation, receive inclusive, factual information about their health.”
While social worker and lobbyist Kate Audette told attendees about the benefits of focusing advocacy on lawmakers rather than the executive branch, she also stressed the importance of remembering that pushing for legislative action is “not a sprint, it is a marathon.”
“In my experience of doing this work for nearly two decades — and [NASW-MA President] Rebekah [Gewirtz] and I say this all the time — on average, it can take about eight to 10 years for a bill to get passed,” Audette said. “During a legislative session, of those 6,000 bills that are filed, the fail rate — if we were to take a look at the fail rate of those 6,000 bills, it’s probably going to be somewhere between 80 and 90 percent. It is very high.”
“The number one reason that I see a bill not move forward is it doesn’t have enough support,” Audette added. “Legislators are trying to manage 6,000 different bills. They have an over $40 billion — with a B, billion — budget that they have to craft annually, and then they have thousands and thousands of constituent issues that they’re dealing with.”