PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island representative has introduced legislation to make school lunch free for all public school students in the state.

Rep. Justine Caldwell’s bill aims to ensure that all students are well-fed so they can focus on learning at school.

“Every child needs to be fed during the school day. Period,” Caldwell said. “High-quality, universal lunch in schools is an investment that will pay off in better academic achievement, fewer discipline problems and healthier kids who have a better day at school.”

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

“Instead of concerning ourselves with which families can or can’t or should pay for it, we should be focusing on how we can seize school lunch as an opportunity to improve nutrition and outcomes for an entire generation of growing children,” Caldwell said.

During the beginning of the 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 current school year.

The proposed legislation is similar to a law passed in Massachusetts, providing free lunch to Bay State students through the end of the school year.

“We have a couple of school years of experience with universal free lunch, and I’m confident that if we look at that experience, we will find that students, families and schools were all better for it,” Caldwell said.

“Besides the important goal of ensuring that no child goes hungry at school, making school lunch free for everyone will eliminate stigmas, put an end to lunch shaming and lunch debt for good and create a situation where more people are invested in ensuring that school lunch is healthy and appealing,” Caldwell continued.