House Speaker Ron Mariano said Thursday that the recently approved universal free school meals program, popular among politicians and the public, “will be a challenge” to fund each year, but lawmakers will “make it work.”

Gov. Maura Healey signed the final budget for fiscal year 2024 last month that included $172 million for free breakfast and lunch for every student in Massachusetts public schools. The program was a priority for the House of Representatives, whose leader Mariano was a teacher.

The move makes Massachusetts the eighth state in the country to make the free meals program permanent after the pandemic policy was initiated with federal money.

But the House-sponsored program takes up a large portion of the new $1 billion in education and transportation spending, available for the first time this year after voters approved a new 4% surtax on household income exceeding $1 million annually.

The senators and Haley originally recommended continuing the pandemic-era program through future supplemental budgets rather than including it in the annual budget bill that funds state government. But after months of negotiations, lawmakers made the program permanent — by incorporating it into the Fiscal 24 budget instead of funding it on a semi-regular basis with supplemental appropriations.

Of the $172 million, $69 million comes from additional tax revenue, and $103 million is funded elsewhere in the spending bill through general appropriations.

“Make no mistake about it, it’s not going to be easy every year. We don’t get ARPA money every year,” Mariano said Thursday, referring to federal pandemic relief money that has helped swell state coffers in recent years. “Maintaining that commitment will be a challenge, but you have my word and these people who will come here after me that we will succeed — we will succeed.”

Mariano, Haley, Gov. Kim Driscoll, House Speaker Aaron Michlewicz, Rep. Andy Vargas and other lawmakers held a news conference about the program at Quincy Elementary School where the House speaker was teaching. Vargas, of Haverhill, was one of the bill’s original sponsors.

Estimating the total cost of feeding every student in Massachusetts two meals a day has slowly crept up over the past year. When the House originally proposed including the policy in the budget in April, it recommended $161 million to cover costs.

Last year, the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget included $110 million to preserve free meals after federal aid — which ran out by March — expired. Haley approved $65 million in additional spending in the spring to keep the program running through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

“When we saw that (federal) funding for the free lunch program was about to expire, Andy Vargas called me with an adjustment to stick to the budget. I asked him the question I ask everyone when they come in. ‘How much?’” Mariano said with a laugh. How much will this cost? He had an approximate figure – just under the target. Slightly below target. “I think it may have been intentional.”

When he approached Michelowitz about including the proposal in the budget, they had a conversation “about everything but money,” the spokesman said.

“I said, ‘I’d really like to do this.’ I remember going to school and asking the kids to put their heads on the desk at eight o’clock because they were tired. And I would ask, ‘The first thing I should do is, ‘Ask have you eaten today?’ “No, no,” Mariano said.

He was one of several speakers Thursday celebrating the new program. The project will impact all 500,000 students in the state’s public schools, said Erin McAleer, Bread Project president and CEO.

“Together we are improving the health and food insecurity of an entire generation of children and generations of children to come,” McAleer said.

Funding free meals for all students will allow the district to improve the quality of the food they serve, Quincy Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Mulvey said.

“The additional government funds will allow us to focus on buying locally and purchasing sustainable food and paper products,” he said. “At Quincy, we have increased the number of meals we provide to our students by 25 percent since the beginning of the free meal program, which is amazing.”

Making meals available to all students helps remove the stigma associated with cutting back on lunch, and will encourage more kids to eat at school, Healey said.

“When we had the opportunity to make it permanent — Aaron (Michlowitz), I don’t know how he does it, but he moves the numbers and suddenly, we have money. We have enough money for this. I can’t think of a better way to spend it,” Mariano said.

The latest revenue report showed state tax collectors brought in $172 million — the exact amount it will cost the school meals program this fiscal year — less in August 2023 than they did last August. Through the first two months of fiscal 2024, the Department of Revenue brought in $21 million, or 0.4% below the benchmark year to date.

    (Tags for translation)Education

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