As many as 10,000 children in Massachusetts will be able to access school meals under a new student nutrition law that also prohibits a school cafeteria practice Sen. Cynthia Creem called "unconscionable," supporters said Monday.
At a ceremonial bill signing for the measure that became law 10 days ago, Project Bread CEO Erin McAleer said requiring schools with a majority of low-income students to enroll in free breakfast and lunch federal programs could help thousands of children who otherwise might have their education stymied by hunger.
"We've known that school meals have always been critical," McAleer said, noting that advocates have been pushing for the measure for years. "For some kids, school meals account for over half of their daily calories, so it's absolutely essential that they can access them and that they're healthy and nutritious meals."
McAleer's organization estimates that 10,000 Massachusetts students attend schools that will be need to to enroll in a federal universal meals program under the new law, meaning students will be able to continue receiving free meals with less stigma or would no longer need to pay a fee.
The legislation Gov. Charlie Baker signed on Oct. 15 also prohibits schools from a practice known as "lunch shaming" in which staff punish or publicly identify students who have unpaid debt for their meals.
A Massachusetts Law Reform Institute report published in 2018 found that 24 Bay State school districts had policies allowing the use of collection agencies for meal debts. The report also determined 27 elementary schools and 34 secondary school districts have policies in place "that directly punish students, and often their siblings, for school meal debt" by barring students from graduation exercises or extracurricular activities.
Baker said at Monday's event that the school nutrition law represents one of the pandemic-era "moments in which we've had a chance to fix things that maybe should've been fixed before."