PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Free lunch for all public school students in Rhode Island could become a reality, but where does it stand?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, school lunch was provided to students nationwide for free due to federal emergency funding and waivers. That funding expired at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

“We hope we can find an affordable solution to make this a reality in Rhode Island,” Speaker Joe Schekarchi told 12 News.

Shekarchi knows how big of an issue providing free meals in the state is post-pandemic.

Free meals for all public schools had some momentum before the recent legislative session came to an end last spring. The Rhode Island Senate overwhelmingly voted 31-4 in favor of funding school meals that the federal government doesn’t already cover.

“We are considering it in the house very carefully it’s just the cost that is involved the estimated cost in the senate bill is about $40 million dollars it was not in the governor’s budget,” Shekarchi said.

Currently, only Providence, Central Falls and a majority of Pawtucket schools in the state have continued the free school meal program post-pandemic.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Education, about 62% of lunches served statewide are either free or reduced-price.

“I think it’s in the top 10 of issues we will consider in the general assembly next year. There are several issues that are leftover from last year and this is one of them,” Shekarchi said. “We just have to find a way to fund it, it’s under consideration.”

A bill introduced by Justine Caldwell, a representative from East Greenwich, would make lunch and breakfast free for all public school students in the state, regardless of their household income.

Her goal is to ensure that all students are well-fed so they can focus on learning at school.

“It is an investment and it is an investment like housing and other things we do in the house,” Caldwell said. “We know that kids cannot learn when they are hungry.”

The Ocean State isn’t entirely behind the rest of the country when it comes to this issue. Only eight states have passed laws to provide free meals to public school children — three of those being in New England, including Massachusetts.

The law went into effect in the Bay State in August and is funded by a new 4% tax on the state’s wealthiest residents.

“There is a complicated system of how we choose who gets free lunch, what municipalities get free lunch, what families get free lunch, and that’s why the best way to do it is give it to everyone,” Caldwell said.

“It just makes it equal and really education is an equalizer and everything that happens in those school buildings should be an equalizer, and breakfast and lunch are two of those things,” she continued.