Dozens of superintendents push to make universal free school lunch permanent

Dozens of K-12 school superintendents are asking lawmakers to make a universal meals program permanent, not just extend it for another year.

More than 80 superintendents signed onto a letter to legislative negotiators, dated last week and circulated Tuesday by anti-hunger group Project Bread, urging them to embrace a House plan that would weave authorization for the meals program into the fiscal year 2024 budget.

The school leaders said by extending the pandemic-era program last year, 80,000 more students ate lunch in October 2022, in schools that previously did not serve free meals to all, than in October 2019.

"Other states who returned to the traditional meal system have seen skyrocketing school meal debt that puts significant pressure on families and schools," the superintendents, representing districts ranging from Truro to Westfield, wrote. "When families are unable to pay, the debt must be covered by the school district. Reducing or eliminating this investment will transfer costs to schools and families already struggling with other demands on our budgets."

Beacon Hill officials broadly agree on a desire to keep offering free meals, but they have taken different approaches. The House moved to make it permanent in the FY24 budget with $161 million in funding from the new surtax on higher earners. The Senate and Gov. Maura Healey did not include the measure or the money in their annual budget proposals and instead have suggested extending the program for another year in a standalone bill.

A conference committee privately negotiating a final annual budget will decide whether to embrace the House's plan.



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