PA voters overwhelmingly support universal free school lunch programs

Governor Josh Shapiro during a ceremonial signing of the 2023-24 budget bill, to provide universal free breakfast to nearly 1.7 million Pennsylvania public school students across the Commonwealth, at Millmont Elementary School in Reading on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. (Photo: Commonwealth Media Services)

By Sean Kitchen

December 8, 2023

Pennsylvania’s free school breakfast program is so popular that 80% of voters want it expanded to provide free lunches for Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million public school students. The support cuts across partisan ideologies and geographic regions.

The universal free breakfast program that Gov. Josh Shapiro signed into law is so popular that 80% of Pennsylvania voters support expanding the program to cover universal free lunch, according to a poll conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research. 

Shapiro enshrined the pandemic-era program into law with a $46.5 million increase in his first budget, making sure that all 1.7 million public school students in Pennsylvania have access to the universal breakfasts. 

The program was restarted by Gov. Tom Wolf with $21.5 million in leftover funds from the 2021-2022 after a universal breakfast program from the US Department of Agriculture expired in 2022. 

“School breakfast is important, but universalizing free school lunch makes sure that our kids have the food they need to effectively learn during the times when they’re actually in school,” said State Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El (D-Lancaster) in an interview with The Keystone. 

“Universalizing school breakfast is an important achievement, but many students simply aren’t in school at the time when school breakfast is served for any number of reasons. If we want to make sure that they are up to par academically getting the nutrition that they need, we need to universalize school lunch.” 

Support for providing free lunches in Pennsylvania’s public schools is universal across all political spectrums and regions of the commonwealth. 

According to the poll, it has the support of 78% of Republicans, 86% of Democrats and 82% of Independent or unaffiliated voters, and has the support of 84% of those who voted for President Biden and 82% of those who voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. 

“Rarely do we see an issue in Pennsylvania that unites nearly everyone,” said Melissa Froehlich Green, Public Communications Chair for the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania. 

“Feeding kids is very popular, and Pennsylvanians of all ages and political persuasions, in all parts of the state, want to connect kids to healthy foods to increase their ability to learn and succeed.”

While the commonwealth provides no-cost breakfasts to public school students, many students are still left on their own when it comes to having lunch. Even though the state participates in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs, there can be a stigma attached to kids receiving those lunches. 

When voters were informed about the stigma or shame children face for relying on these programs to eat, 83% of the poll’s respondents were more likely to support the universal meal program. 

“If we really care about students and we really care about education, then we’re going to make sure our kids are fed and we’re going to move on to more complex issues. Making sure children don’t go hungry is not a complex issue. We should just get it done,” said Smith-Wade-El. 

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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