Universal free school lunch bill introduced at State House

Posted 1/24/23

Legislation to make school lunch free for all public school students in Rhode Island was introduced in the State House last week. Sponsored by Rep. Justine Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West …

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Universal free school lunch bill introduced at State House


Legislation to make school lunch free for all public school students in Rhode Island was introduced in the State House last week. Sponsored by Rep. Justine Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) the bill aims to ensure that all students are well-fed so they can focus on learning at school; it also seeks to eliminate distinctions among children based on family income.

“Every child needs to be fed during the school day. Period,” said Caldwell in a Jan. 18 press release. “High-quality, universal lunch in schools is an investment that will pay off in better academic achievement, fewer discipline problems and healthier kids who have a better day at school. Instead of concerning ourselves with which families can or can’t or should pay for it, we should be focusing on how we can seize school lunch as opportunity to improve nutrition and outcomes for an entire generation of growing children.”

At the pandemic’s onset in March of 2020, school breakfasts and lunches were made free across America due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Universal Free Lunch Program. The program ensured that students received free meals at school regardless of income but expired in June of 2022.

This past fall, many Rhode Island districts resumed charging students for lunch. According to the press release, 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. Additionally several states, including Massachusetts, have continued universal free school lunch at least through the 2022-2023 school year, paying for it with state funds.

With the universal free school lunch being introduced last week, Caldwell is now looking at finding out how much providing free lunch in Rhode Island Public Schools would cost and the different ways that it could be paid for.

“I think this would really benefit parents and students and I think the policy benefits would outweigh what I think would be minimal cost,” Caldwell said in a Monday interview.

She said this bill is new to her and was introduced in years past by former Representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell; Caldwell is currently going through past hearings and documents concerning the bill and is looking to have the legislation be part of a broader effort to address quality and nutrition of public school lunches.

She added that high-quality breakfast and lunch is a necessity at school and kids cannot learn if they are hungry. The bill would erase lunch debt and the stress/stigma behind getting free or reduced lunch. She said kids should be focusing on doing well academically and having fun with peers instead of worrying about what they have to eat at lunch.

According to the release, free lunch is offered to school families whose incomes fall below 130 percent of the poverty level. For reduced prices, a family income must fall between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level.

“The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) finds that about 62 percent of school lunches served statewide are either free or reduced-price,” reads the release.

According to Cranston Public Schools (CPS), approximately 39.8 percent of the district’s current population qualifies for free or reduced priced lunch.

“The proposed bill would allow us to ensure that all students have the same opportunities for lunch in school each day,” said Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse. “This would also help families by alleviating the increased cost of providing lunch for their children. It would also allow us to focus our finances on educating our students rather than finding ways to pay off school lunch debt each year.”

As of Jan. 19, the CPS’s student lunch debt totaled $183,016.03. Nota-Masse added that the lunch debt is incurred when students who must pay for lunch don’t. The district is trying to be creative in addressing the situation.

CPS’s Chief Financial Officer Joe Balducci told School Committee members Monday night that he reached out to RIDE to see if the district could use food service funds to hire a person who can act as a liaison on behalf of the district and reach out to families and see which ones are having difficulty filling out the free and reduced lunch forms. CPS has several applicants who applied for the position. He is also researching if the district can use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to pay off the debt.

The district explained that limited access to food can negatively impact a child academically.

“A student cannot learn if they are hungry and not everyone has the same resources and the same consistent access to nutritious food. Hungry students do not perform as well on assessments and cannot pay attention to what is being taught in the classroom as well either. Food insecurity is a big issue, especially now when prices are so high,” Nota-Masse said.

State Representative Brandon Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston) is one of nine co-sponsors for the bill.

“No person should ever go hungry, especially not children in school. Supporting our school districts so that every student can eat without being shamed is a simple step the General Assembly can take to support students,” said Potter in an email interview.

Potter added that Councilwoman Aniece Germain has been a big proponent of the initiative and has urged him to work on it.

Looking at neighboring districts, Johnston Superintendent Bernard DiLullo Jr. shared that Johnston has 1066 students (33 percent) who qualify for free lunch and 264 individuals (8 percent) who qualify for reduced price lunch.

Districtwide, Johnston has $10,000 in lunch debt. He said the schools’ principals and central office staff work throughout the year to collect unpaid debt.

“The proposed bill will significantly impact all students in our state by providing proper nutrition through the school day. All students will be afforded the opportunity to select a healthy meal regardless of their ability to pay for it. In Johnston, this will eliminate the debt incurred by students and families who from time to time cannot pay for lunch,” said DiLullo. “Johnston does not restrict students from obtaining breakfast or lunch regardless of the student’s ability to pay. This was a decision the Johnston School Committee made some years ago.”

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