Each year the Massachusetts Legislature decides how to spend tens of billions of dollars through the annual fiscal budgeting process. In January, Governor Baker proposed a budget of $54.8 billion. Now, the House will consider the Governor’s proposal and release their own budget in April, followed by the Senate in May. If all goes according to schedule, the Legislature will be finishing up their budget by June to pass a final version by July 1st.
Anti-hunger priorities can be found throughout the budget. The state spends most on health, education, and human services (44%, 18.1%, 10.1% in FY2022 respectively), which are also the areas that most impact and are impacted by food insecurity. Each year, Project Bread and our partners identify ways the state can invest in reducing food insecurity and address the root causes of hunger. We advocate throughout the spring to ensure many of these priorities are included in the legislature’s budget and are signed into law by the governor.
For almost two years, USDA waivers have provided students and families universal school breakfast and lunch. From October 2019 to October 2021, there was an increase of 31,000 students eating lunch daily. Unfortunately, Congress has failed to act and it is very likely these federal waivers will expire at the end of this school year. Massachusetts has the opportunity to take action.
We know even if things continue to improve with the pandemic, many families will continue to struggle. In 2019, 26% of food insecure families with children were not eligible for assistance from free or reduced-price school meals. Without the pandemic extension, 400,000 students would lose access to free school meals and could face the barriers of stigma and additional cost.
This cliff will also impact schools and communities. When families are unable to pay because of the end of food waivers, the district will try to recover unpaid meal debt from other sources to pay it down.
Extending school meals for all for the 2022-23 school year would cost the state $110 million after leveraging up to an additional 16 million in federal dollars from the program.
Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline has been largely funded through the state budget since 2007. The Foodsource Hotline is an important resource that connects Massachusetts residents to food resources in their community and screens households for SNAP.
In 2021, the FoodSource Hotline received almost 16,000 calls and screened over 6,000 callers for SNAP, a 33% increase over 2019. We have increased call center capacity and staff to meet the demand. As we continue promoting the FoodSource Hotline to help families, demand will only continue to grow. With more expansive promotion, we’re aiming for 2,300 calls a month and 1,000 prescreens for SNAP.
To support these goals, we plan to hire 2 additional full-time counselors who are bilingual in either Spanish, Portuguese, or Haitian Creole. As part of this growth, we also need to make additional technology upgrades to improve the caller experience, including a new text option for individuals who prefer text over chatting or making a phone call. To hire new staff and for these upgrades, Project Bread is seeking $850,000, an increase from $600,000 last year.
Since 1994, Project Bread has been contracted by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide technical assistance and conduct outreach to increase participation in two underutilized federal nutrition programs: the School Breakfast Program and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), known as Summer Eats in MA.
During the pandemic, Project Bread pivoted to help create more than 1,600 food distribution sites that provided over 7.5 million meals across the state in 2021. As schools transitioned back into in-person instruction and federal waivers funded universal school meals, Project Bread’s Child Nutrition Outreach Program (CNOP) provided outreach materials, social media toolkits, signage, grants, and technical support to 129 school districts. CNOP also supported districts with supply chain issues due to recipe substitution, communicating with families about menu changes, and maintaining meal quality.
Project Bread is seeking $700,000, an increase from $600,000 last year, to be in more communities and reach more kids this summer and to support schools through the changes of the 2022-2023 school year. These funds will be used to hire an additional outreach coordinator to support schools and community partners as well as to update to a more inclusive brand.
During normal times, school meals are subsidized according to household income. For households with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level, families must pay the reduced-price of $0.30 for breakfast and $0.40 for lunch if a student does not attend a Community Eligibility Provision school. This represents a family income of between $36,075 and $51,338 in the 2022-2023 school year. Or in other words, an income far below the cost of living in Massachusetts.
Participation among this group of students is lower than those who qualify for a free meal, and this category of reduced-price meals contribute disproportionately to school meal debt. Massachusetts can follow the lead of thirteen other states who have used state funds to eliminate subsidized school meals and provide them free instead. Project Bread is asking legislators to permanently cover subsidized meals in full in the state budget. We estimate an additional 3,000 students would participate in school meals and 20,000 students who previously participated would no longer need to pay a fee.
This change would cost an estimated $1.8 million per year; however, Massachusetts would receive $900,000 in additional federal reimbursements.
Project Bread also supports the following proposals for the FY2023 budget to help alleviate food insecurity for Massachusetts families: