Office of Rep. Vargas
Time to end food insecurity among Mass. children
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
School meal policies can make a big difference
The following op-ed originally appeared in Commonwealth Magazine.
WITH THE HOLIDAY season upon us, many of us find ourselves enjoying quality time with family and friends, often spoiled with delicious food. Yet, many of us can remember a time when food was not so readily available because we were in between paychecks, cash-strapped during college, faced with a medical emergency, or in between jobs. This is a reality for far too many people right here in Massachusetts.
Thousands of residents in Massachusetts will, unfortunately, spend the holiday hungry. One out of every ten residents in Massachusetts is food insecure. Perhaps more alarming–one out of every seven children in Massachusetts faces food insecurity. Fortunately, there are a couple items on the wish lists of many advocates, families, and members of the Legislature that can help us combat child hunger in a meaningful and cost-effective manner.
One initiative is a piece of legislation called Breakfast After the Bell, which helps ensure that every child in Massachusetts public schools has access to the most important meal of the day. Breakfast After the Bell provides breakfast in the classroom after the starting bell for the first period or homeroom. Currently, breakfast before the bell poses several barriers for students. Transportation issues, tardy buses, overwhelming cafeteria lines, the small window of time to make the line and eat food prior to the first bell ringing, and the powerful stigma that “really poor kids are the only ones who eat breakfast in the cafeteria.”
The good news is that there is sufficient evidence that Breakfast After the Bell programs work. Schools that have already adopted the measure say they’ve seen dramatic increases in student participation in free breakfast, as high as a 77 percent. These are students that are eligible for free breakfast that previously weren’t getting it.
If that weren’t enough, Breakfast After the Bell also proves to be a revenue-generating solution thanks to the US Department of Agriculture funding for the program. Massachusetts has 638 high-poverty schools. About 215 of these are home to after the bell breakfast programs, meaning that 423 schools are leaving money on the table. According to the Eos Foundation, “if all of these schools launched after the bell breakfast programs and reached 80 percent participation rates, collectively, high poverty communities would tap into nearly $32 million in USDA reimbursements each year — money currently forfeited due to low breakfast participation.” Some districts that are early adopters are already using the excess revenue to buy Chromebooks or more modern, efficient kitchen appliances, for example.
The second piece of legislation, An Act to Promote Student Nutrition, would end school lunch shaming practices and require school districts that have high concentrations of free lunch students to enroll in the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
CEP programs save economically disadvantaged school districts money by providing free lunch to every student—an “economies of scale” model. Districts cut down on administrative costs, lower unit prices for food, enroll more students for federal reimbursements, and feed more kids.
School lunch shaming is the practice of denying a student lunch or providing them a cold lunch if their parents have failed to pay their meal debts to the school district. Believe it or not, there are schools in Massachusetts where a student with a meal debt can walk up to a counter with the hot meal in their tray, have that meal thrown away in front of their peers, and are handed a cold sandwich as a substitute.
This is not only a gross waste of taxpayer dollars, but an injustice that is counter to Massachusetts values. It is not school cafeteria workers who should be blamed, but rather a lack of uniform and clear meal debt policies across districts and even among schools within the same district. This bill would end that practice and ensure that students are not shamed or punished for meal debts. We would be joining states like New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington, which have already passed similar legislation.
Hunger and food insecurity costs Massachusetts an estimated $2.4 billion in increased health care related expenditures according to the Greater Boston Food Bank. These are avoidable expenditures that we help lessen by ensuring that every child has access to food while in our public schools. Both of these bills do a social good, a moral imperative, and a fiscally sound favor to the Commonwealth and its most vulnerable youth.
Andy Vargas is a state representative from Haverhill. Aaron Vega is state representative from Holyoke.