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3/14/2024 Coalition supports Healthy School Meals for All bill sponsored by Rep. Caldwell, Sen. Cano
STATE HOUSE – A coalition of more than 40 local organizations today joined House Deputy Majority Leader Justine A. Caldwell and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra S. Cano in support of their legislation to provide a free and nutritious breakfast and lunch to all students daily, regardless of their household income, as part of the school day.

The legislation (2024-H 7400, 2024-S 2320) is aimed at improving the quality of meals served at school and students’ participation, with the objective of ensuring that every child has the nutrition they need to learn all day.

“All kids do better in and out of the classroom when the food they eat is healthy. Making breakfast and lunch universal at school, ensuring it is nutritious and appealing and providing kids enough time to eat it will improve health and learning for children communitywide. In addition to helping the many families suffering from food insecurity, universal meals will ensure that all kids have healthy food to fuel their day and help them focus on learning. When eating well at school is the norm for every kid, we will see the results in academic success and a healthier population, now and in the future,” said Representative Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich).

Said Chairwoman Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket), “There are enough challenges facing kids and teachers at school. Hunger absolutely should not be one of them. When every child has enough to eat, everyone is better able to focus on learning. This is an issue of equity as well, because it will help create the inclusive learning environment schools should have. We saw the success of universal free meals during the pandemic, and we should be doing everything we can to bring back that standard. This will increase food security and health statewide while simultaneously strengthening education and making school a place where children know their needs will be met.”

Members of the Healthy School Meals for All Coalition, which includes more than 40 organizations dedicated to health, children, education and ending poverty, held a State House event today calling for passage of the legislation.

Supporters hailed the bill as a way to ensure that all public-school students are hunger-free and ready to learn, reduce stigma associated with eating school meals, end the problem of unpaid school meal debt, ease administrative burden for schools, and support school nutrition finances and operations.

“Research shows that empty bellies are a barrier to learning for children and youth and school meals play a critical role in student health and academic success,” said Karin Wetherill, co-director of the Healthy Schools Coalition. “We can improve learning, eliminate student meal debt and shame, and foster improved quality in school meal programs by making ‘Healthy School Meals for All’ permanent in every Rhode Island public school district.”

Providing free meals to all students would help address food insecurity in Rhode Island, which has been growing under rapid inflation and rising food costs. In 2023, 38% of families with children in Rhode Island were considered food insecure, meaning they struggled to afford adequate food.

“The Rhode Island Community Food Bank is serving nearly 80,000 people every month through its statewide network of member agencies, significantly more than the height of the pandemic,” said Food Bank CEO Andrew Schiff. “Healthy School Meals for All legislation is a cost-effective way to improve attendance, behavior, and academic achievement for Rhode Island kids. It also takes the pressure off the Food Bank’s network of agencies by reducing food insecurity for Rhode Island families with children.”

In Rhode Island, families must fall at or below 130% of the poverty level ($39,000 annually for a family of four) to qualify for free school meals. According to the Economic Progress Institute’s 2022 Rhode Island Standard of Need, a family of four in Rhode Island needs to make $85,914 — more than twice that income — just to meet basic expenses.

 “As a music educator who has been at the elementary and secondary levels, I see that food insecurity causes more than just hunger. Students who have access to food are more likely to be focused, better behaved, and better able to manage their emotions,” said Chelsea Anderson, an East Providence educator. “Many families may fall just outside the eligibility criteria to qualify for free or reduced lunches, but are still struggling, which may result in families making difficult decisions. Let’s take that burden off the families in our communities and ensure students have access to nutritious meals so they can truly succeed.”

Universal school meals would have other benefits as well, such as reducing stigmas associated with school lunch.

According to the Department of Education, between September and November 2023, 58% of the lunches served were to free or reduced-price eligible students, and 72% of the breakfasts served were served to free or reduced-price eligible students.

The legislation seeks to have schools to take maximum advantage of federal funding for meals, and would also direct funding through the Department of Education. It further encourages schools to maximize participation by improving meal quality by sourcing locally when possible, giving students and families a voice in menu selection, preparing fresh scratch-cooked foods and providing lunch periods that are at least 30 minutes, with no less than 20 minutes when students are actually seated to consume food.

 “Imagine schools sourcing food from local farms and doing more scratch cooking. Greater participation and investment in school meals can improve offerings and boost our local economy,” said Tobias Wessling, a student at Davies Career & Technical High School. “Continuing learning and growth depend on healthy eating. Healthy School Meals for All is a policy that guarantees all public-school students, regardless of household income, have access to breakfast and lunch at no cost throughout the school day.”

From the onset of the pandemic until the start of the 2022-2023 school year, school lunch was provided to all students nationwide for free thanks to federal emergency funding and waivers. Providence and Central Falls, numerous charter schools, 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 population-wide.

Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and six other states have instituted permanent universal free school meal programs.

Rhode Islanders support a Healthy School Meals for All program. According to the Rhode Island Survey Initiative conducted by the URI Harrington School of Communications & Media in September of 2023, 68% support legislation that requires free lunches to be provided for all K-12 students attending public schools.

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923