Andrew Morehouse Testifies for Universal School Meals
On July 17 2023, Executive Director Andrew Morehouse testified at the State House on behalf of the Food Bank for H.603/S.261, An Act Relative to Universal School Meals. This bill has long been a priority for the Food Bank, as its passing would be deeply impactful on childhood food insecurity in Massachusetts.
“One of the few positive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic was that for two years all school meals were provided free of charge for K-12 students throughout the US,” said Public Policy Manager Laura Sylvester on the bill’s history. “Once the pandemic began to ebb in 2022, the federal government ended this program, but Massachusetts extended it through the end of the 2022-2023 school year. This proposed legislation that would make free school meals permanent in the Commonwealth.”
Below is Andrew’s testimony as submitted to the Massachusetts Joint Committee of Education.
Dear Chair Garlick, Chair Lewis, and distinguished Members of the Committee,
My name is Andrew Morehouse and I’m the Executive Director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. I’m here to testify in support of H.603/S.261, An Act Relative to Universal School Meals. Thank you for this opportunity to advocate for this bill, which would make universal school meals permanent to ensure greater food security for all children in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
The Food Bank is proud to be part of the Massachusetts Food Bank Coalition, providing healthy food to households in the four westernmost counties of the Commonwealth, through our network of 170 member food pantries, meal sites and shelters as well as our own 77 direct distribution sites. However, it is also our mission to lead the community to end hunger.
Over the past year, as we have phased out of the pandemic, high inflation and the expiration of federal pandemic benefits have exacerbated food insecurity and further strained our region’s food assistance network. At our peak, in November 2020, the Food Bank provided healthy food to almost 125,000 individuals. By February of this year, demand for food assistance had dropped to about 82,000 individuals – still very high. Since then, food assistance has begun to climb again, reaching just over 94,000 individuals in April. A seven-month average of 26% are children.
Let’s pause to internalize this fact: In Western Massachusetts alone, 24,440 children do not have enough healthy food at home. Their parents or grandparents must seek out food at least monthly at a local food pantry to feed their children and grandchildren.
The bad news is we expect these numbers to continue to increase based on the amount of food we have distributed in recent months. The good news is the legislature can pass this bill and ensure all school children continue to have access to school breakfast and lunch next school year and beyond.
We have been working with Congressman Jim McGovern, Project Bread, and other statewide partners to enact the plan of the September 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health to end hunger by 2030. This ambitious national goal drives us to explore the underlying causes of hunger and to advocate for local solutions like the one proposed in this important legislation.
In Massachusetts, over 1 in 5 households with children struggle with food insecurity. States that returned to the traditional school meal system when the federal pandemic waivers ended have seen skyrocketing school meal debt that puts significant pressure on families and schools. When families are unable to pay, the debt must be covered by the school district. School meals for every child eliminates the stigma associated with accessing schools meals, ends school meal debt and saves families up to $1,200 per student per year. In short, children are guaranteed breakfast and lunch so they may learn and grow healthy. Investing in our children is investing in the Commonwealth.
Our staff have visited many schools with high populations of students qualifying for free and reduced breakfast and lunch. We have heard from countless teachers about what free meals meant to their students. Were it not for school meals, they said, students would not be eating much and students dreaded weekends and vacations because it meant they would be hungry.
We also know that there are many students whose family income is just a bit too high to qualify for free or reduced meals, yet those families struggle to make ends meet and are faced with impossible choices between paying for school meals and other bills. In every “wealthy” community, there are also students who qualify for free lunch. For them, the stigma of receiving school meals is real and traumatizing. Many students would rather go hungry than be seen as “needy.”
Massachusetts is already a leader in addressing food insecurity, serving as a model for the rest of country… again! No child in our Commonwealth should be food insecure and, especially, go hungry in school. We urge you to report out favorably H.603/S.261, An Act Relative to Universal School Meals. Thank you for your consideration.”
-Andrew Morehouse, July 17 2023