Pennsylvania’s Universal Free Breakfast Program: What You Need to Know

school breakfast© keni1 / Getty Images / Canva

PENNSYLVANIA — On Wednesday, Senator Lindsey M. Williams joined Representative Emily Kinkead, school administrators, advocates, and parents to discuss the importance of ensuring that all Pennsylvania students have reliable access to nutritious school meals every day.

The Wolf Administration announced the Universal Free Breakfast Program earlier this month, which will provide free breakfast for all Pennsylvania students enrolled in schools that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, beginning October 1. However, this program only covers breakfast and will expire after the 2022-23 school year.

Senator Williams and Representative Kinkead have introduced the “No Student Should Go Hungry Universal School Meals” legislation in the Senate and House. This legislation would create a Special Fund, funded from General Fund revenue, that would dedicate $275 million per year to feed all Pennsylvania students breakfast and lunch.

“For perspective, Pennsylvania’s entire budget is $45.2 billion—that’s billion with a B,” said Senator Williams. “$275 million is .006% of that budget. In June, we passed a massive cut to corporate taxes, but we did very little to help working families directly. This is something that we can do right now that will have a huge impact on families across the Commonwealth. I’ve heard from so many parents who are grateful they don’t have to worry about paying for breakfast this year. I’ve heard from educators and administrators throughout the Commonwealth about how much this means for their students. .006% isn’t too much to ask to ensure that every kid across Pennsylvania doesn’t go hungry at school.”

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Nicole Melia, Food and Nutrition Services Supervisor at the Great Valley School District and member of the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania explained that, “Research shows us the importance of school meals when it comes to ensuring that students are ready to learn.  “You can’t teach a hungry child” is a common moniker that teachers, dietitians and food service professionals have been using for a long time. Providing consistent, guaranteed and nutritious meals in school is a proven strategy to help provide food security, reduce absenteeism, decrease nurses visits and increase test scores for our children.”

Deanna Philpott, a parent, School Wellness Consultant, and North Hills School Board Member spoke about how this legislation will impact students, the community, and Pennsylvania farmers. “Most exciting for me as a mom, school board member, and professional in this area is the idea that restructuring the way our school meal program is funded provides the opportunity for a new vision for our cafeterias. In a world with universal school meals, the school cafeteria becomes another classroom, where nutrition, gardening, and sustainability can be taught. Food Service Directors can be educators. Taste testing of new, healthy, local produce can flourish, introducing our kids to ingredients they may never experience at home. Programs like Pennsylvania Harvest of the Month and the Pennsylvania Farm to School Network could be experienced by all students across Pennsylvania. Our farms would thrive, our students would thrive, our communities would thrive.”

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“No child should ever go hungry in school or feel shame about not being able to afford a meal,” said Kinkead. “Governor Wolf recently announced an amazing free school breakfast program for all K-12 students, but it’s only temporary. With our new legislation, Senator Williams and I want to create a permanent, universal free school meal program for public schools in our state – something that’s needed now more than ever because the cost of living for working families has skyrocketed.”

Kinkead emphasized that, this year, only students with a family income of 185% or below the Federal poverty currently qualify for free or reduced school meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, arguing that while studies have repeatedly shown that student hunger impacts school performance, far too many students do not have access to the nutrition they need to thrive in a learning environment.

“This legislation ensures that kids can focus on learning, not on the pain of an empty stomach or the shame of being the only kid without a tray at lunch,” added Kinkead.

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Also speaking at the press conference was Dr. Sherri Smith, Incoming Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and former Deputy Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

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