STATE HOUSE – The debate over free school meals may have been on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. But now that students are again paying for breakfast and lunch at school, Representative Teresa Tanzi wants the state to step in.
“We know children cannot learn when they’re hungry,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett). “Before the pandemic we saw dystopian headlines where children were in debt because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them. We can’t go back to those days.”
Representative Tanzi is sponsoring legislation (2023-H 6007) that expands upon a bill introduced by former Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, who for years had championed a free lunch bill. Representative Tanzi’s bill would provide all students free, nutritious breakfast and lunch, encourage schools to purchase food from local farms, ask schools to engage with the community to cook culturally relevant meals and allow parents with means to pay for meals if they choose.
“When we talk about educational outcomes, we focus on testing, teacher recruitment, and school buildings,” said Kate Brewster of the Jonnycake Center for Hope. “All of that is important, but none of it matters if kids are hungry. Kids who don’t get regular nutritious meals can’t concentrate as well and just aren’t on a level playing field. This has lifetime consequences for their education and earnings.”
In May of 2019, the Warwick School Department made national headlines when it announced it would give students SunButter and jam sandwiches if they were behind on their lunch debt. Donations poured in and the district reversed course, but not before drawing attention to the fact that thousands of Rhode Island children are in debt for the simple act of eating.
When COVID hit, federal assistance brought free breakfast and lunch to schools around the country. Now that money has dried up, and many students are again paying to eat at school.
Most Rhode Island districts began charging students again at the start of the current school year. Providence and Central Falls, as well as seven schools in Pawtucket and one in North Kingstown, continue to provide universal free school lunch because they qualify for federal funding based on income communitywide.
In the remaining Rhode Island school districts, public school lunch is offered for free only to families whose incomes fall below 130% of the poverty level, and at a reduced price for those whose family income falls between 130% and 185% of the poverty level. But caregivers must apply for this benefit and many do not, even when they are eligible. Some may be unaware they qualify and others may fear stigmatization.
While Rhode Island schools are again charging for breakfast and lunch, other states are maintaining universal free meals. Maine and California have permanent universal free school meal programs. Colorado will join them next fall after voters there approved a similar program by referendum. Vermont, Massachusetts and Nevada have free school meal programs this year and are debating making them permanent. Pennsylvania has free school breakfast this year and is debating making it permanent.
An additional COVID relief program, an additional $95 per month for households that qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will end March 1. That leaves struggling families with even fewer resources to feed their children at a time of rising prices. That, Representative Tanzi says, adds urgency to this effort.
“As a society, we take care of our children,” Representative Tanzi said. “Ensuring they have nutritious, hot meals is the right thing to do, for them, our teachers and our future.”