"Free Lunch" May Not Be Forever


House Speaker Ron Mariano speaks at a press conference related to the universal free school lunch program in Quincy on Thursday, joined by lawmakers and Gov. Maura Healey. [Sam Drysdale/SHNS]

The recently-approved universal free school meals program that is popular among politicians and the public "will be a challenge" to fund each and every year, but lawmakers will "make it work," House Speaker Ron Mariano said Thursday, casting a note of caution on the otherwise ebullient mood.

Gov. Maura Healey signed a final fiscal year 2024 budget last month which included $172 million for free breakfast and lunch for every student in Massachusetts public schools. The program was a priority for the House -- whose leader, Mariano, used to be a teacher.

The move made Massachusetts the eighth state in the country to make the free meals program permanent after the policy began in the pandemic with federal money.

But the House-sponsored program takes up a significant chunk of a new $1 billion pot specifically earmarked for education and transportation spending, available for the first time this year after voters passed a new 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million per year.

Senators and Healey originally recommended continuing the pandemic-era program through future supplemental budgets instead of baking it into the annual budget bill that funds state government. But after months of negotiations, lawmakers made the program permanent -- by embedding it into the fiscal 24 budget as opposed to funding it on a semi-regular basis with supplemental appropriations.

Of the $172 million price tag, $69 million is coming out of surtax revenue, and $103 million is funded elsewhere in the spending bill through general appropriations.

"Make no mistake about it, it's not going to be easy every year. We don't get ARPA money every year," Mariano said Thursday, referring to federal pandemic relief funds that helped swell state coffers in recent years. "It will be a challenge to keep this commitment, but you have my word and from these guys who are going to be here after me that we'll make it -- we'll make it work."

Mariano, Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz, Rep. Andy Vargas, and other lawmakers held a press conference about the program at the Quincy elementary school where the House speaker used to teach. Vargas, of Haverhill, was one of the bill's original sponsors.

The estimate of the total cost to feed every Massachusetts student two meals a day has slowly crept up over the past year. When the House originally proposed putting the policy into the budget in April, it recommended $161 million to cover the costs.

Last year, the fiscal year 2023 state budget included $110 million to keep the free meals in place after federal aid expired -- which ran out by March. Healey approved $65 million in supplemental spending in the spring to keep the program running through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

"When we saw that it looked like the [federal] funding for the free lunch program was about to go under, Andy Vargas approached me with an amendment to stick it to the budget. I asked him the question I ask everyone when they come in: how much? How much is this going to cost? He had a rough number -- a little under target. A little under target. I think it might have been on purpose," Mariano said, laughing.

The speaker said when he approached Michlewitz about including the proposal in the budget they had a conversation "about everything but the money."

"I said, I'd really like to do this. I remember coming into school and having kids put their head down on the desk at eight o'clock because they were exhausted. And I'd ask, the first thing I'd ask, did you eat today? 'No, no,'" Mariano said.

He was one of several speakers Thursday who celebrated the new program. Project Bread President and CEO Erin McAleer said it would impact all 500,000 students in the state's public schools.

"Together we're improving the health and food insecurity of an entire generation of kids and generations of kids to come," McAleer said.

Quincy Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Mulvey said the funding for free meals for all students will allow the district to improve the quality of the food they serve.

"The additional state funds will ... allow us to focus on buying locally and procure sustainable food and paper products," he said. "In Quincy we have successfully increased the number of meals we serve to our students by 25 percent since the beginning of the free meals program, which is amazing."

Healey said that having meals accessible for all students helps remove the stigma associated with reduced lunch, and will encourage more children to eat at school.

"When we had the opportunity to make it permanent -- Aaron [Michlewitz], I don't know how he does it, but he moves the numbers around and all of the sudden, we have money. And we have enough money for this. And I can't think of a better way to spend it," Mariano said.

The most recent revenue report showed state tax collectors brought in $172 million -- the exact amount the school meals program will cost this fiscal year -- less in August 2023 than they did last August. Through the first two months of fiscal 2024, the Department of Revenue has brought in $21 million or 0.4 percent less than the year-to-date benchmark.

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