It's Just Good Economics: The Case for School Meals for All

Project Bread

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School is an exciting time for kids. They’re learning to read, write, play, and ask questions. They’re told if they do well in school, anything is possible - that all their dreams for when they grow up can come true. Unfortunately, it’s much harder for kids to succeed when they’re hungry. 

The Feed Kids Coalition — lead by Project Bread — has filed School Meals for All legislation that would mean Massachusetts would have Universal School Meals. If enacted, Massachusetts would become the third state, following behind Maine and California, where school meals would be available at no-cost to every student. 

Here's why School Meals for All makes good "cents", and will pay dividends in and out of the classroom, far beyond the simple act of serving food to children at school.

The Annual Cost of Hunger

Before the pandemic, nearly 1 in 10 households with children were experiencing food insecurity. Since COVID, that number is now nearly 1 in 6. Lacking access to quality, affordable, and nutritious food hurts both people and our economy. Massachusetts spends $2.4 billion every year combating the negative impacts of food insecurity. These include mental health issues, diabetes, obesity, and impaired cognitive development in children. These are avoidable expenses.

The annual cost of hunger: $160 billion nationally, $2.4 billion in Massachusetts

School Meals for All is an economically viable solution that will save money in both the short and long-term.

School meal programs generate a more than 2x return on investment, providing nearly $40 billion in health and economic benefits nationwide.

In Massachusetts, implementing School Meals for All requires $100-120 million annually - an investment that will pay dividends in improved health and education outcomes. The financial savings of School Meals for All will be felt not only in our state budget, but also by our schools and families. 

A graphic that says "School Meals for All is a Small Price to Pay for Food security" showing that MA spends $2.4 billion on food programs annually, and School Meals for All will cost $100-120 million annually
School Meals cost $20 billion but generate $39.5 billion in benefits to our society

Societal Benefits

School Meals for All is an effective way to reduce food insecurity. When children have their appetites fed and get the nutrients they need, it reduces their risk of developing chronic health conditions like diabetes. Diabetes is one of the biggest food insecurity-related health costs, with a price tag of more than $7 billion in Massachusetts for direct medical expenses and lost productivity. Tackling child hunger now will translate to fewer hunger-related health expenses in the future.

Additionally, universal school meals can boost lifetime earnings. When students receive free meals throughout primary school, their incomes will be at least 3% higher as an adult. They have better school performance, which helps them to obtain higher-income careers and levels the playing field for a generation of future leaders. These leaders will boost our state’s budget by contributing more through taxes during their lifetime and helping create a more vibrant economy across the Commonwealth.

School Meals for All will save school nutrition programs money on food, labor, and administrative costs (58 cents per breakfast and 67 cents per lunch served)

Saving Schools Money

Passing this legislation will also have tangible economic benefits for our schools. Massachusetts school districts are strapped with more than $5.5 million in meal debt for reasons similar to other schools across the country.  School administrators and cafeteria staff also work long days and nights administering free and reduced lunch programs to determine, verify, and recertify eligibility.

Schools Meals for All will eliminate eligibility paperwork and lead to administrative cost savings. The reduced time spent on processing and verifying applications yields a combined savings of 68 minutes per student, which translates to labor cost savings of about $29 per student per year. This will save cafeteria managers hundreds of hours of paper pushing, reduce the stress of contacting families about their eligibility, and saves schools money. 

Furthermore, universal school meals can increase federal meal reimbursements by 13.5% (or $5.33 per student annually). This can directly boost school revenue

In fact, schools participating in CEP spend 67 cents less per lunch served and 58 cents less per breakfast when accounting for food, labor, and administrative costs. Implementing School Meals for All will allow every school to realize these cost savings. 

Savings for families

Universal school meals will save money for our state and our schools. But perhaps most importantly, the cost savings of School Meals for All will be felt in the pockets of families. During the pandemic, many parents quit their jobs to take care of their children and affording food became a constant worry. Luckily, schools like those in the Hoosac Valley offered free daily grab-and-go lunches, which proved to be a lifeline. According to Rosanne Schutz, School Nutrition Director at Hoosac Valley, “One parent would pick up her meals and say that now she knew her children would have a good meal each day and that was one less thing she had to worry about.” 

Free school meals bring families peace of mind and will also eliminate the growing burden of student meal debt. Meal debt puts families and schools into impossible situations that lead to less than ideal practices aimed at recovering meal fees. Kids may be denied from having a meal completely or be barred from participating in extracurricular activities - both of which can have serious impacts on students’ physical, social, and mental well-being. School Meals for All will get rid of student meal debt and save families up to  $1200 every year from reduced grocery expenditures. These savings are significant, and represent money families can put towards other critical needs like utilities, transportation, doctor’s visits, and childcare.

School Meals for All will yield significant cost savings to our state, our schools, and families in the Commonwealth. Without this legislation, Massachusetts will continue to spend substantial and unnecessary amounts of money fighting the negative consequences of food insecurity. Passing School Meals for All is partly about the economic gains for families, schools, and our state. However, it is also about ensuring children do not go hungry during the school day. It’s about fostering the health of children so they grow into healthy adults. It’s about helping students complete and excel in their education, so they can pursue their dreams. School Meals for All is about creating an environment where the kids of today contribute to the wealth, vibrancy, and prosperity of Massachusetts in the future. 

Case Study: Springfield

After the Springfield, MA school district adopted the Community Eligibility Program (which provides free breakfast and lunch for all students, essentially universal school meals for that distritct), their revenue grew by 43.5% in three years, from $15.4 million to $22.1 million.

School Meals for All will generate revenue for Schools

The Feed Kids Campaign

It's time to ensure School Meals for All

Project Bread has joined forces with some of our most influential and dedicated anti-hunger partners and allies to launch the Feed Kids Campaign! A state-level legislative campaign in support of School Meals for All Massachusetts students. 

The Feed Kids Coalition—led by Project Bread—and bill sponsors Senator Sal DiDomenico and Representative Andy Vargas have filed legislation for School Meals for All. The hearing for our School Meals for All legislation is scheduled for January 4, 2021. The bill is about to face a critical moment. 

The Joint Committee on Education will vote at a hearing on Tuesday, January 4, 2022 on whether this bill to make school meals availble at no-cost to all students in Massachusetts will move forward. 

If the Commitee votes out the bill:

  • Favorably: We are one step closer to School Meals for All becoming enacted into law.
  • Unfavorably: We will refile the bill next legislative cycle and try again. 

How you can help

Your legislators need to hear from you!

Complete this urgent Action Alert before the hearing on January 4 - even if you have done one for School Meals for All in the past - urging your legislators to support School Meals for All legislation!

More About the Feed Kids Campaign

By ensuring all students have access to school meals at no cost, more children could receive the nutrition they need at schoool, helping them to thrive. 

The time is now. COVID-19 has worsened our already pressing hunger crisis, especially for children. Food insecurity increased from 1 in 10 children to 1 in 5 households with children in Massachusetts. Join our coalition to pass School Meals for All legislation (S314/H714) that provides a solution that lasts far beyond the pandemic.

We're reimagining school meals. Join us on our Feed Kids Campaign
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