Schools in the Attleboro area, among others across the state, are seeing an increase in food insecurity among children as the universal school meals bill remains on hold

By Katherine Hapgood
Boston University Statehouse Program

Janice Watt, who directs the Foxboro Public Schools Food Program, has seen a sharp increase in the number of children taking advantage of the USDA’s Universal School Lunch Program, with attendance dropping from about 1,300 meals a day to about 1 800 this year.

It grew enough that Watt increased its staff to 22 workers.

But as the program nears its June 30 end date, Watt fears that will mean taking a step back, both through reduced hours and returning to the old pay-per-meal structure if the program isn’t. not renewed at the federal or state level.

“We were able to focus on feeding children, not hunting people for money,” she said.

The ability to provide free meals has been wonderful, she said. But now, she said, “everything is very uncertain,” adding that if the program is allowed to expire, the district will face higher food prices, lower reimbursements and lower take-up.

Heather Baril, director of food services for North Attleboro Public Schools, said more than half of students in the district participate in the program, up from 39% or 40% in 2019.

“Since we moved to universal school meals, everyone has had a chance to try it and have loved all the fresh foods and vegetables,” she said. “(Now) we’re sort of in limbo.”

As in Foxboro and North Attleboro, public schools in Massachusetts are in limbo as national and state data reflect the growing prevalence of food insecurity in the state, with rates in households with children rising to the percentages from the early pandemic era as some federal programs and waivers begin at “sunset,” according to Sarah Cluggish, program manager at Project Bread.

House and Senate Bills, H.714 and S.314, to expand the national program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to every student with reimbursement to each participating school district, was filed with the state legislature with a July 1 start date. But the proposals remain in the Education Legislative Committee and cannot move forward until the national legislation is voted on, since the program is funded by the federal government.

According to U.S. Census Household Pulse Surveyfood insecurity for Massachusetts households with school-aged children — defined as disruption of food intake or eating habits due to lack of money and other resources — increased from 12.5% ​​in May 2021 to 21.4% in December 2021, compared to 23.6% in May 2020, at the start of the pandemic.

“That’s why something like universal school meals is such an essential solution because families don’t have to think about it,” Cluggish said. “Their kids just go to school, they get free lunches, they don’t have to sign up for anything.”

Food insecurity in households with children is more evenly distributed than most people realize, Cluggish said, with more calls from Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline coming from the North Shore, South Shore and Greater Boston, but not a stark difference. But, Cluggish said, that doesn’t necessarily reflect need, but knowledge of the hotline and the location of the main office.

Language and knowledge of the dozens of federal food assistance programs available like SNAP and P-EBT are barriers to addressing food insecurity, Cluggish says, and it can be overwhelming for many families.

Project Bread works to give families access to resources in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Education, particularly in light of higher rates of food insecurity in households with children.

Between 25% and 30% of callers to the SNAP hotline, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are households with children, according to Project Bread. Among food insecure households with children, minority households remain disproportionately more food insecure, Cluggish said.

Across the state, black and Latino households are seeing the slowest recovery as the pandemic appears to be subsiding, she said.

Among food-insecure households with children from July to December last year, only 11.9% identify as white, according to the US Census Household Pulse Survey.

“Knowing where to turn and where to find help can be overwhelming, especially if English isn’t your first language,” Cluggish said.

Watt said she worries some families in Foxboro may fall through the cracks, having too high an income to qualify for certain types of assistance. “They’re working but they’re struggling to make ends meet,” she said.

A major task throughout the pandemic for the DOE has been to help implement “more than 100 waivers offered by the USDA to facilitate the provision of meals to students while learning remotely from home,” said Rob Leshin, director of the Office for Food and Nutrition Programs. at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

DESE has been involved in discussions on the Universal School Meals Bills.

“School meal attendance is definitely up this school year given that meals are free, so because attendance is up, it can be assumed that households are finding free school meals helpful,” Leshin said. .

According to DESE, participation in school meals has increased by 15% compared to the pre-pandemic period, with more than 42 million meals served so far this school year.

Doug Dias, director of finance and operations for Marlboro Public Schools, said officials have found that students often don’t communicate openly about food insecurity for fear of being stigmatized.

Universal school meals not only eliminate stigma, Cluggish said, but also address that immediate need to feed the child, while having a long-term impact on a child’s diet for many years to come. “(It’s) making that investment in a student’s growth and educational opportunities,” Cluggish said.

Dias said Marlboro schools have seen “a big increase in participation” in universal school meals, with participation rates increasing by more than 10% at the secondary level and 3-5% at the primary and intermediate level on average. .

Due to the number of low-income students in the district and transportation as a potential barrier, the system has worked to provide meal continuity throughout the pandemic, providing about 400,000 meals remotely, Dias said.

DESE also found that the displacement of students who rely on school meals was the main problem, nutritionally speaking, when schools closed in 2020, Leshin said.

For now, uncertainty over the future program is forcing food service managers to wait.

At Foxboro, one of Watt’s concerns is that as the school year draws to a close, it’s time to solicit bids from vendors, and she doesn’t know what kind of price she can commit to. .

Baril, in North Attleboro, is already exploring other potential sources of state and federal funding.

“What I’m doing is re-evaluating all the numbers,” she said.

Families will need to know the options available to them, she said.

“As soon as something is official, we’ll start spreading the word,” Baril said.

Even if the rules of the program change, she said, she still hopes that many families who benefited from the free meals will be able to participate.

“I’m optimistic,” Baril said. “I keep hope.”

This article originally appeared in The Chronicle of the Sun.

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