(WGGB/WSHM) – A pilot program that will allow all students in Massachusetts to qualify for free school meals has been signed into law.
“I don’t think it should be just one particular district, I think it should be every city, every town should be able to feed the kids,” said Georgina Rizzo, cook manager at Lambert-Lavoie Elementary in Chicopee.
Governor Charlie Baker just signed a new one-time investment of $110 million that will support free school meals for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. This pilot program makes Massachusetts the fifth state in the country to guarantee students access to free meals for the next school year
Melanie Wilk, the food service director for Chicopee Public Schools, told Western Mass News that she’s thankful the state has recognized the need for students to eat free, especially coming out of the pandemic.
“No matter what the income, the pandemic definitely affected everybody and it wasn’t as low-income families. It was everybody,” Wilk explained.
Chicopee Public Schools is one district that already provides free meals for students we wanted to know how it’s been working for them. We headed over to their free food truck where we caught up with Chicopee parent Heather Peek, who told us free school meals provides relief for all parents.
“It’s nice to know that your kids are coming home with a full belly and an education on top of it,” Peek said.
Wilk told us she’s noticed an overwhelming amount of gratitude from both students and parents after they introduced their free meal program.
“We hear so many positive comments from the parents you know handing out the grab-and-go meals and how important it was for them. A lot of people lost work throughout COVID, kids were home from school, and parents suddenly had to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner all at once, many times, for multiple kids,” Wilk noted.
Wilk added that universal free meal programs help get rid of the stigma for students and families who qualify for free lunches while also helping relieve stress on the administrative side.
“It eliminates the need for us to collect income applications, so less paperwork on our side, less for the parents to do as well,” Wilk said.
On Monday, Rizzo was hard at work, handing out free meals to families as part of their summer meal program. She told us how it feels to know that all Massachusetts students will soon be eligible for free meals all year long.
“I think it’s a great idea for kids to get free meals. The way the rise in prices are – gas prices, food prices, everything going up – and not only that this could be their only meal that they get, so I feel very good about being able to give the kids free meals all year long,” Rizzo added.
Wilk said although the lunches are free, it doesn’t affect quality or nutrition.
“We get reimburse more from the government for them, so we’re able to put that into our budget and purchase the food. We still are doing our farm-to-school programs, so we get lots of fresh veggies from farms all across the area,” Wilk said.
Peek seemed to agree.
“…And the lunch that’s provided is healthy options. There’s fruits and vegetables, so it’s not just junk food that the kids wanna eat. It’s great food for them,” Peek said.
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