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All Pennsylvania public and charter school kids will receive free breakfast this year

A student is handed her afternoon snack at an elementary school.
Jae C. Hong
A student receives her afternoon snack at Kingsley Elementary School in Los Angeles. Many of the students at the school in a low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles eat breakfast and lunch provided by the school.

More Pennsylvania kids will start their days with full stomachs due to a new program from the Wolf administration.

The $21.5 million initiative will bring free universal breakfast to 1.7 million kids, starting Oct. 1 and running through the academic year. All kids at public and charter schools are eligible, along with students at private schools and child care centers that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

“It doesn't take research studies to tell us that letting a child go hungry is morally wrong,” Gov. Tom Wolf said, when announcing the program at Steelton-Highspire Elementary School in Dauphin County on Friday. “But we also know that it doesn't help your education process, which hurts all of us. So it's just a self-interest point of view, not very smart.”

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School districts will set their menus and prepare the breakfast meals as usual but then will be reimbursed by the state. The money comes from a fund for school meals. This pot of money grew during the pandemic due to COVID-19 meal funding to schools from the federal government.

Unlike other meal programs, kids will automatically qualify for free breakfast regardless of family income. Doing so lowers the barrier to entry and helps feed more kids dealing with food insecurity. Nicole Melia, the public policy chair of the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania, said that's the right approach, noting that this year there's been an increase in families who qualify for free and reduced meals.

“Despite our best efforts, we fear there may be families who fall through the cracks,” said Melia. “As a dietitian, it was easy to recognize a clear need for universal school breakfast.”

It’s not clear if the program will continue next school year. The governor is term-limited, so what happens next is up to his successor and the state legislature. “I’m hoping it sort of seeds the system and says, ‘Okay, this is what we really ought to be doing.’”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.