Rep. Caldwell introduces universal free school lunch bill


STATE HOUSE – Rep. Justine Caldwell has introduced legislation to make school lunch free for all public school students in Rhode Island.

The legislation, introduced yesterday, is aimed at ensuring that all students are well-fed so they can focus on learning at school, and to eliminate distinctions among children based on family income.

“Every child needs to be fed during the school day. Period,” said Representative Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich). “High-quality, universal lunch in schools is an investment that will pay off in better academic achievement, fewer discipline problems and healthier kids who have a better day at school. Instead of concerning ourselves with which families can or can’t or should pay for it, we should be focusing on how we can seize school lunch as opportunity to improve nutrition and outcomes for an entire generation of growing children.”

Currently, in most Rhode Island school districts, public school lunch is offered for free only to families whose incomes fall below 130% of the poverty level, and at a reduced price for those whose family income falls between 130% and 185% of the poverty level. According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, about 62% of school lunches served statewide are either free or reduced-price.

From the onset of the pandemic, school lunch was provided to all students nationwide for free thanks to federal emergency funding and waivers. That funding expired at the start of the current school year, and most Rhode Island districts began charging students once again. Providence and Central Falls, as well as seven schools in Pawtucket and one in North Kingstown, continue to provide universal free school lunch because they qualify for federal funding based on income communitywide.

Neighboring Massachusetts, as well as a handful of other states, chose to continue universal free school lunch at least through the 2022-2023 school year, paying for it with state funds.

“We have a couple of school years of experience with universal free lunch, and I’m confident that if we look at that experience, we will find that students, families and schools were all better for it. Besides the important goal of ensuring that no child goes hungry at school, making school lunch free for everyone will eliminate stigmas, put an end to lunch shaming and lunch debt for good and create a situation where more people are invested in ensuring that school lunch is healthy and appealing,” said Representative Caldwell.

Representative Caldwell, who picked up sponsorship of the bill this year from former representative Marcia Ranglin-Vassell who championed it for years, introduced the bill as part of a broader effort to address quality and nutrition of public school lunches.

Cosponsors of the universal free lunch bill include Rep. Brandon C. Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston), Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), Rep. Tina Spears (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, Westerly, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol), Rep. Susan R. Donovan (D-Dist. 69, Bristol, Portsmouth), Rep. Kathleen Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence, Pawtucket) and Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence).


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