Pennsylvania will provide every student with a free school breakfast this academic year, regardless of household income, Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday.
The Universal Free Breakfast Program, which will cost $21.5 million in state funds, impacts more than 1.7 million children enrolled in public, private and charter schools that participate in the National Free Lunch Program. Childcare facilities that participate in the free meal program also will be eligible.
The program goes into effect Oct. 1, and lasts through the end of the academic year, Wolf said. Interested schools that do not participate in the national lunch program can apply through the state’s Department of Education.
“It is completely unacceptable for a child to start the day hungry,” Wolf said. “I’m taking hunger off the table for Pennsylvania kids by creating the Universal Free Breakfast Program. Regardless of whether or not they qualify for free or reduced meals normally, every student enrolled in public or private schools will have the opportunity to feed their belly before they feed their mind this school year.”
Nearly 1 million Pennsylvania students received free school meals from March 2020 through last school year as part of an effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make meals free to all students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The loss of universal free school meals, announced by the USDA earlier this year, meant that students across the country must again meet income requirements to receive free meals.
When schools resumed in-person instruction last fall, breakfast consumption among Pennsylvania students increased by 16% compared to the 2018-19 academic year – the last full year without a universal program, Wolf’s office found.
The School District of Philadelphia has provided free school meals since 2014 in an effort to reduce the cost burden on families and remove the stigma associated with the district’s previous free school lunch program.
Melissa Froehlich, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania, said that by implementing universal free breakfast, Pennsylvania will strengthen childhood nutrition programs and address inequity and stigma against school breakfast.
Froehlich noted research shows students who eat breakfast before school are more likely to be in school, participate in classroom discussion and have improved concentration.
“It takes a village to tackle an issue as important and impactful as food security for our children,” said state Sen. Lindsay Williams, the minority chair of the Senate’s education committee. “Keeping students fed, nourished and ready to learn is vital to their health and education. These investments in school meals relieve the pressure on our families as grocery prices rise and ensure that all students can access nutritious food without shame or stigma.”
In August, the Wolf administration created the Hunger-Free Campus Initiative to address hunger among college students in Pennsylvania. The program expands college food pantries as part of a larger effort to tackle food insecurity among students.