On May 5, Erin McAleer, CEO of Project Bread, MA Representative Paul F. Tucker, and Rick Jakious, District Director for U.S. Representative Seth Moulton, visited Horace Mann Laboratory School in Salem to celebrate National School Lunch Hero Day and recognize those efforts! Salem Public School officials, including Dr. Stephen Zrike, Superintendent of Salem Public Schools, and Scarlett Grandt, Horace Mann Laboratory School Principal, and nutrition staff gathered to learn more about the work happening with the school meal program, tour the kitchen, and taste test a recipe developed onsite. The event concluded during school lunch with conversations with students and a game of “Simon Says!”
All students in the district are able to receive free breakfast and lunch through a federal provision allowing schools with a high percentage of low-income students to serve meals for free. For many families in Salem and around the state, free school meals is one of the few benefits they can rely on, amid changing policies around pandemic relief.
“We haven’t said thank you enough for how flexible and supportive our nutrition staff have been,” said Superintendent Zrike. “Food service really helps sustain so many families. Salem was hit very hard by the pandemic, and so many kids and families depended on what our staff were doing these last two years. They were in our kitchens every day, delivering food on school buses and visiting different sites to reach more people.”
Despite the importance of the program, as many as 31,000 children statewide will lose access to free school meals in June, when COVID-19 relief waivers are set to expire. Without extended legislation for Universal School Meals, these students will be at risk of not having access to the nutrition they need to learn, grow and thrive. Since universal school meals were implemented, there has been an 18.1 percent statewide increase in school lunch participation and 19.5 percent increase in school breakfast participation. Research has also shown that students are able to pay closer attention, perform at a higher level, and regulate their emotions better when they are not hungry.
“Every student deserves access to free meals while at school,” shares McAleer. “In Salem, it’s clear to see how invaluable this is—to the students who can join in with their friends at lunch and to the staff, who can focus on feeding the students delicious meals, instead of worrying about payments or turning students away. At Project Bread, we have focused our advocacy on continuing to provide these free school meals to students, and we are closer than ever with a bill for permanent School Meals for All in the State House and a one-year extension of the program in the House of Representatives’ budget proposal.”
Project Bread is working to ensure school meals are available at no cost and free of stigma for every student in the state. The organization works with Salem Public Schools District to support continued meal service for students as part of the nonprofit’s School Food Fellowship program. School Food Fellows participate in monthly professional development training and onsite meetings with Project Bread’s Chef Educators, including the development of a new recipes that cater to supply chain limitations and meet USDA nutrition standards.
“School nutritional professionals like the incredible staff in Salem really are heroes, providing this critical need for students day in and day out. For the last two years, they have gone above and beyond in the most challenging circumstances to make sure that kids are fed,” said McAleer. “This School Lunch Hero Day, we’re proud to honor our partners in the Salem Public School District and throughout the state of Massachusetts for their commitment to keeping our kids fed and ready to learn.”
Project Bread filed School Meals for All legislation to protect, improve, and expand school meals access. On January 4, 2022, thousands of Massachusetts residents advocated for this legislation, some sending messages to the state legislature, some signing on to support letters spanning 8 different industries, and 21 bold advocates gave testimony during the Joint Committee on Education hearing. The Committee now has until June 1st to vote on whether to report out the bill favorably, bringing us one step closer to allowing every student who wants or needs a school breakfast or lunch to receive it – at no cost to their family. The Massachusetts House of Representatives, with support from Representative Tucker, has also included a proposed one-year extension to Universal School Meals in the $50 billion dollar draft state budget. While the Senate has yet to release their draft budget proposal, a one-year extension will be a major step forward in continuing to feed our children each day in school. The alternative is to return to a tiered-pay school meal system that leaves out at least 26 percent of food insecure children and perpetuates perceived stigma.
“I strongly support our House budget resolution as I have seen firsthand in Salem how universal school meals and the work that Project Bread is doing positively affects learning through good nutrition and healthy eating, which are so needed for students to succeed in the classroom,” shared Representative Tucker. “Thank you to the team at Project Bread and to Salem school nutritional staff for bringing nutritional, great tasting breakfast and lunch every day for all. Healthy food makes happy and eager learners.”
Join Project Bread and the Feed Kids Coalition in ensuring that children can continue recieving free school meals, and school nutrition staff can receive increased federal reimbursements and support! The coalition is focused on making sure the state funds the extension of School Meals for All in the fiscal year 2023 budget. Will you join us and let your legislators know we need to invest in feeding our students?