Free breakfast and lunch will soon be available for all RI public school students

Lawmakers and education advocates rallied Thursday to support legislation that would require free meals for public school students regardless of family income.

Tens of thousands of children already rely on family income for free breakfast and lunch, but House and Senate bills would expand existing programs and make them mandatory.

What do bills do?

After the outbreak of COVID-19, the federal government proposed a waiver allowing schools to provide free meals to students under a program called Healthy School Meals for All. The proposed legislation would make this policy permanent.

The House bill would require all public elementary and middle schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to students, while the Senate bill would eliminate the low-income requirement for participation.

Senate bill sponsor Sen. Sandra Cano said, “When children are hungry, their ability to learn and thrive is impaired. “This has significant implications for both short-term and long-term development. This legislation is about doing what’s right – what’s right for our children, our families and our communities.”

More:Class Size Limits, Education as a Right: How These New Bills Could Change RI Education

Deputy Majority Leader Justin Caldwell speaks Thursday afternoon at the State House Library about a bill to support free breakfast and lunch for Rhode Island students.

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Using state and federal funds, the program may cover school meals, classroom meals, or cafeteria meals. It also promotes the use of locally grown produce whenever possible.

Representative Justin Caldwell, the sponsor of the House bill, reflected on his two school-aged children who are away from home several hours a day in class.

“During this time, we expect kids to learn, absorb new ideas, ask questions, behave well,” Caldwell said. “It’s very hard work for them. . . . They certainly couldn’t do anything like that without eating.”

Supporters of the bills say the program would reduce food insecurity, allow students to get a better education, eliminate the debt that accumulates in student accounts and eliminate the stigma of accepting free meals.

Kylie Ogaldes, a student at Blackstone Academy and policy director for Young Voices, an urban youth advocacy group, said she sees her peers going hungry and wants the shame removed for those who need help.

“Families should not have to choose between paying for school meals and other essential expenses,” she said.

How much does the program cost and who pays?

State support can be combined with federal funding received through existing USDA programs, allowing schools to meet need-based reimbursement without state contributions.

The Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition estimates the state should pay between $30 million and $38 million for the meals, but that will depend on student participation and the amount covered by federal funds.

From left, Evelyn Vargas Morales of Central High School, Valeria Gil of Classical High School and Patton Martinez of Met School, Blackstone Academy student Kylie Ogaldes hold signs as she concludes her speech welcoming free breakfast and lunch to Rhode Island students at the State House.  Library on Thursday afternoon.

From left, Evelyn Vargas Morales of Central High School, Valeria Gil of Classical High School and Patton Martinez of Met School, Blackstone Academy student Kylie Ogaldes hold signs as she concludes her speech welcoming free breakfast and lunch to Rhode Island students at the State House. Library on Thursday afternoon.

What programs are already available?

Some programs are income-based, designed to feed children who cannot afford food. The National School Lunch Program serves more than 72,000 Rhode Island children each day through USDA subsidies and food donations.

Those who receive free meals must be at or below 130% of the poverty level. Those falling between 130% and 185% of the poverty level can get a meal for 40 cents or less. Those whose families are above the senior level pay the price set by the school.

About 70% of school lunches in Rhode Island are free or reduced-price.

A similar program is also available for breakfast. Prices and income guidelines are about the same for the School Breakfast Program, but those who buy the discount pay 30 cents or less. About 29,000 children use the program every day. All told, 85% of Rhode Island school breakfasts are free or reduced-price.

This article originally appeared in The Providence Journal: Free lunches for all RI public school students made possible by legislation