Friday, May 24, 2024

Mayor Marc McGovern visits the Amigos School in May. (Photo: Mayor’s Office)

One of the key responsibilities I see for myself as mayor – and for all policy makers and administrative leaders – is to create equitable opportunities for everyone in our community to thrive. Nowhere is that responsibility more important than in our classrooms, and as is often apparent when students return to school, some with new clothes, selfies from far-flung vacation spots and the latest gadgets, nowhere are disparities more sharply focused. 

Back-to-school season is all about ensuring our children are prepared to learn and grow. As city leaders, we share responsibility for making sure our students are ready at the beginning of the school year, and each morning. We can do that by removing hunger as an impediment to learning.

This year, we have committed to it.

Studies have shown that hunger can have severe negative consequences for a student, affecting behavior, attendance, mental health and overall cognitive function. Having children in our classrooms who are hungry creates a profound disadvantage that Cambridge cannot tolerate. 

Last year, a full 43.5 percent of Cambridge Public Schools students got either free or reduced-price lunch, depending on a family’s annual income – 130 percent or less of federal poverty guideline amounts for free lunches; 185 percent or less for reduced-price lunches. It’s an important resource for students who qualify, but a woefully poor indicator of need.

The federal poverty guideline for a family of four is $25,100 per year. That’s far less than what most families in Cambridge pay in rent or child care for a year. By contrast, the 2015 Income Insecurity Report issued by my task force reported that a family of four actually needed to earn $108,800 a year to meet basic needs such as housing, utilities and food – what we called the “Cambridge Security Standard.” By local standards, the distinction made by the federal poverty guideline between free and reduced-price lunch was nearly irrelevant when compared with the income required for actual stability. 

Closing that gap and expanding free lunches to every student who qualified was one of the primary recommendations coming out of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program Report, which my office wrote last year with School Committee member Kathleen Kelly and city councillor Alanna Mallon (then director of the Food for Free program).

bullet-gray-small When the council returns this fall, I am proud to announce that the city manager will be recommend an expansion of free-food programming, ending the reduced-price lunch category in Cambridge Public Schools and allowing needy students from kindergarten through 12th grade to eat for free.

bullet-gray-small We will also establish a free breakfast program in all elementary and upper school buildings; expansion to the high school is in the works.

Children whose family earn too much to qualify for free lunch but still fall well below the Cambridge Security Standard will no longer have to worry getting a free breakfast, and we will reduce the stigma that can be associated with accessing services, ensuring every child has a nutritious start to the day.

bullet-gray-small Finally, in further recognition of hunger as an impediment to learning during the most critical early childhood development period, these funds will also be used to offer free breakfast to all children who attend preschool programs through the Department of Human Services Program. In the end, hundreds more children across Cambridge preschool programs and public schools will get free breakfast and lunch.

Consistent healthy nutrition will have an impact on the well-being of children and families in our community. Expanding these services would not have been possible without the support of the district and city staff, so I hope you will join me in thanking the many people who worked behind the scenes. I especially want to thank Mallon, Kelly, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, Superintendent Kenneth Salim and his chief operating officer, Jim Maloney. 

In closing, I wish our kind, resilient and intelligent children all the best as they begin the school year. I challenge us all to engage with our community and seek out ways to support public education – it is indeed the foundation of a better future.

Marc McGovern is mayor of Cambridge.