For the 11 years that Franklin County Technical School Cafeteria Lunch Manager Elizabeth Bouchard has worked in school nutrition, she's always envisioned a time when school meal service would not be based on financial freedom or hardships.

In a strange twist of events, it was during the pandemic when her hope became a temporary reality.

At the outset of the COVID-19 upheaval, federal lawmakers approved universal free school meal programs to help combat rising food insecurity. Bouchard said she finally witnessed the critical role school meals play when participation is not limited to a select group.

"Our meal service more than doubled when we were able to deliver meals to address the increase in food insecurity throughout our vast district," she said. "We literally brought out seven buses and delivered to our 19 sending towns in our district."

But now that program is slated to expire over the summer, and food security advocates are warning of an impending "perfect storm" that could affect hundreds of thousands of students in the state.

With lapsing federal assistance, rates of food insecurity increasing, and full recovery from COVID-19 still a ways off, advocates with the Feed Kids Coalition say a food insecurity crisis exacerbated by the pandemic could get even worse. And because Congress has offered no indication it will extend the waivers, advocates are pressing state lawmakers to step in and approve a universal free school meal program to help students in need.

"Time is of the essence. And we are facing a deadline, we're facing a cliff, families are facing a cliff, and they cannot wait and schools cannot wait," Project Bread CEO Erin McAleer said during a legislative briefing Tuesday morning. "You're hearing from school nutrition professionals who are planning for next year without knowing what it's going to be like."

Early in the pandemic, Congress gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to issue nationwide child nutrition waivers that set up free school meals, alternative pick-up and delivery models, and the ability for meals to be consumed offsite.

But without further Congressional action, those reforms are scheduled to end on June 30.

Advocates across the country have been urging federal policymakers to include extensions to the programs -- specifically universal school meals -- in a $1.5 trillion spending bill that is winding its way through Washington. The U.S. Senate last week declined to include a universal school meals provision in its version of the legislation.

Project Bread Public Policy Assistant Director Leran Minc said about two-thirds of schools in Massachusetts will no longer be eligible for free school meals once the federal waivers expire at the end of June, which could affect roughly 400,000 students.

"If they need or want a school meal, they would have to face those two big barriers of stigma and cost in order to receive one," he said.

In Massachusetts, the Feed Kids Coalition -- which includes Project Bread -- is asking lawmakers to pass legislation (H 714 / S 314) that would make universal free school meals permanent in the Bay State.

Rep. Andy Vargas and Sen. Sal DiDomenico's proposal would allow all students who want a school breakfast or lunch to receive it at no cost to the family and with no requirement to sign up.

The Education Committee heard testimony on the bills at the start of January, and the Legislature later extended the committee's reporting deadline until June 1. The News Service previously reported Education Co-Chair Sen. Jason Lewis has said the extra time would allow lawmakers to see if the USDA extended the universal free meals program.

With the federal waivers soon to expire, state lawmakers need to act immediately, McAleer said, urging the Legislature to use any option available to help feed kids in Massachusetts.

"Please use any vehicle at your disposal," she said. "You know, it was mentioned earlier ARPA, the budget, a supplemental, anything to ensure that an extension of universal school meals happens for next school year."

Massachusetts offers a program that allows high-need schools to serve free meals to all students "while alleviating the administrative burden to collect paper applications," according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

To participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, a school must meet a minimum level of students who are approved for free meals, agree to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, and agree to use non-federal funds to cover any cost of providing free meals.

With the implementation of universal free school meals, Bouchard said her school district has seen an average 30 percent increase in school lunch participation. The increase, she said, allowed school officials to enhance students' academic achievement as they consumed healthier foods.

Triton Regional School District Food Service Director Sarah Littmann has experienced a similar story. In the last few years that school meals have been free, she said her district has witnessed a "significant increase" in foodservice program participation.

Compared to 2019, she said, school breakfast participation has increased by 112 percent and at lunch, the district is serving 1,400 more meals a day.

"If we go back to operating how we were before, that's 1,400 children every day that will have to rely on their parents, convenience foods, or even skipping a meal because their access to food has been taken away," Littmann said.