A pilot program in Massachusetts offering universal school meals would be extended through the end of the 2023-24 school year as part of a supplemental budget proposal filed Friday by Gov. Maura Healey.
The $734 million proposed spending plan includes $171 million for the state-funded school meals program.
The proposal also directs the state Office of Education to report by early next year on options to extend the program into the future, including looking for ways to tap into federal funds to help pay for it. The administration had earlier requested funding to continue the program through the current school year, Healey noted.
“The universal school meals program has proven to be a success in expanding access to nutritious meals for all students, and it’s essential that we keep it running,” Healey said in a press release.
The move comes as states have grappled with the end of a pandemic-era federal aid program that made school breakfast and lunch meals available for free to all public school students — regardless of family income levels,
Advocates and state legislators have been pushing to make the meals permanent as student participation continues to climb locally and statewide.
Legislation that aims to indefinitely extend support for the program has garnered support from local lawmakers including state Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, and state Rep. Jim Hawkins, D-Attleboro
The meals were extended last summer using $110 million of state allocated funds but are set to expire later this year.
The Massachusetts House earlier this month had unanimously approved an additional $65 million to fund the program through the end of the school year in light of increased participation.
Participation by students who wouldn’t otherwise qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch has grown 35% since the start of the program, according to the Department of Education and Secondary Education.
The universal school meals program has increased North Attleboro public schools meal participation from 42% to 71%, serving many families in these tight financial times, Heather Baril, the food service director, said in a recent Sun Chronicle report.
Baril cites many advantages with the program: more participation, no longer having to collect payment from students and worry about debt, and more fresh food.
Other states are weighing expanded or universal meals programs.
California and Maine made universal meals permanent in 2021.
Last year, Colorado voters approved a ballot measure to provide free meals for all public school students.
Vermont — which opted last year to continue the free meals for all public school students for another year using surplus state education funding — is considering a bill that would make universal free school meals permanent.
Healey’s supplemental budget plan also includes $20 million to help the beleaguered Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recruit and retain employees — money that would help increase hiring bonuses, boost entry-level pay for bus operators and develop a marketing campaign to support hiring efforts.
Worker shortages at the transit authority have contributed to a slew of problems, including a slowdown in subway trips during rush hours.
The proposed budget also would triple the operating budget of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to help pay for the state’s continued push for clean technology and decarbonization efforts. It also includes $2 million for the state’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution.
The budget plan now heads to state lawmakers.