Pa. educators, anti-hunger advocates push for no-cost school meals
Sen. Lindsey Williams and Rep. Emily Kinkead, both Allegheny Co. Democrats, want to create a permanent program to provide Pennsylvania K-12 students with free breakfast and lunch, dubbed the Universal School Meal Fund
State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny attends the Senate Education Committee Hearing held at the Pennsylvania Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
Anti-hunger advocates and educators joined two Pennsylvania lawmakers in the Capitol on Wednesday, urging legislative action to ensure no-cost breakfast and lunch in K-12 schools.
Sen. Lindsey Williams and Rep. Emily Kinkead, both Allegheny County Democrats, want to create a permanent program to provide Pennsylvania K-12 students with free breakfast and lunch, dubbed the Universal School Meal Fund.
Their legislative proposals in the Senate and House, which call for $275 million from the state budget to support the program, aim to combat child hunger and foster academic success by providing consistent access to healthy meals without stress or stigma.
“Whether we’re helping a student who forgot their lunch at home, a parent struggling with the loss of a job, or a family just trying to make ends meet, ensuring that every student has access to breakfast and lunch with no shame or stigma is one of the most common sense ways we can help our kids be ready to learn every single day,” Williams said during a press conference.
Nicole Melia, food and nutrition services supervisor at Greater Valley School District, said the proposal will ensure “that all students will have access to quality nutrition every day.”
The proposals come after months of Democratic lawmakers urging the Wolf administration to offer no-cost meals ahead of the 2022-23 school year and weeks after Gov. Tom Wolf announced the Universal Free Breakfast Program.
The $21.5 million initiative announced by the Wolf administration, which begins on Oct. 1 and runs through the current academic year, is expected to help 1.7 million Pennsylvania kids. Students in public, private, and charter schools are eligible, including child care facilities participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.
Waivers approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture afforded students free school meals from March 2020 through the 2021-22 academic year, amounting to nearly 1 million students eating for free each year.
Comparing the 2018-19 school year — when breakfast was not universal — to 2021-22, the Wolf administration estimated a 16 percent increase in breakfast consumption, estimating that 16 percent of Pennsylvania children would start their day with empty stomachs when the waivers expired before the 2022-23 school year.
“I’m overjoyed that we’re able to take this first step toward keeping our students fed and ready to learn. I’ve heard from so many parents who are grateful that they don’t have to worry about paying for breakfast this year. I’ve heard from educators and administrators throughout the commonwealth about how much this means for their students,” Williams said of the Universal Free Breakfast Program.
But the program announced by the Wolf administration only temporarily addresses the issue of food insecurity in Pennsylvania schools. And with Wolf leaving office in January 2023, there is no guarantee the initiative will continue with his successor.
“This has been such an obvious fix that we really need to be addressing because investing in our kids has been shown over and over and over again to be one of the best methods to have a massive return on investment,” Kinkead said of legislatively ensuring no-cost school breakfast and lunch. “Investing in our kids means that they do better in school, and they are put on a path to become the most amazing leaders of our future, and we have the ability to do that.”
The School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania supports legislation establishing free lunch and breakfast in K-12 schools, citing research that shows 1 in 7 children in Pennsylvania experience food insecurity.
“As the healthiest meals for many children, it is an investment in our future,” Melissa Froehlich, communications chair for the association, told the Capital-Star.
Research shows that school-provided meals boost kids’ healthy food intake, decrease childhood obesity, and support better learning outcomes.
“We have a responsibility to kids in our schools,” Kinkead said. “When they’re under our care, we have to care for them. And that is not just educating them in the classroom. That is making sure that they have all the tools necessary in order to best absorb that education.”
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