children eating food

(The Center Square) – With some extra cash in the education budget, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced a program to expand universal breakfast programs for public and private school students.

The announcement, however, caught legislators off-guard.

“We didn’t even hear – we got calls from reporters, that’s how we found out about it,” said Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and chairman of the Education Committee. “We didn’t know, he didn’t send us anything.”

The $21.5 million to pay for the breakfast program for 2022-23 comes from last year’s food service budget, according to a release, which are already appropriated funds; thus, the governor didn’t need to go through the General Assembly. Wolf is term-limited and departs office in January following the Nov. 8 election between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano.

The program begins Oct. 1, the release said, and serves 1.7 million students.

It’s unclear whether universal breakfast will become a permanent program. Wolf's office did not respond to requests to answer that, and corresponding fiscal questions, by The Center Square. If it becomes permanent, it would need recurring funding. Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Pittsburgh, introduced a bill that would make breakfast and lunch free for all students.

“It is incumbent upon us as legislators to use the public funds for the public good and nothing is more important than ensuring that each and every student in Pennsylvania is fed so that they have the best opportunity to learn to be the leaders of tomorrow,” Kinkead wrote in a legislative memo.

In his release, Wolf said, “I’m taking hunger off the table for Pennsylvania kids by creating the Universal Free Breakfast Program. Regardless of whether or not they qualify for free or reduced meals normally, every student enrolled in public or private schools will have the opportunity to feed their belly before they feed their mind this school year.”

When it comes to school issues, however, parental priorities don’t seem to focus on the price of school meals.

“We don’t really hear about this issue – and I get calls about everything,” Martin said. “No one was really ringing this alarm bell with us.”

Some districts, like the School District of Lancaster, already offer free breakfast and lunch to students regardless of income level.

Instead, Martin said the Republican focus on education centers on providing mental health resources and school security along with ensuring full funding.

“Education’s certainly not going to go away,” Martin said. “Of course the governor’s – that big increase in basic education funding was recurring, so we have to see, moving forward, where’s this economy go in terms of revenues and how do we maintain that level of support for all school districts out there?”