ALBANY, N.Y. Jan. 9, 2023 — Senator Michelle Hinchey, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, and other legislators joined education, anti-hunger, nutrition, health, and equity advocates at the Capitol today to call on Governor Kathy Hochul to address the quiet crisis of childhood hunger in schools by funding a statewide, permanent Healthy School Meals for All program in the FY2024 State budget.
Senator Michelle Hinchey said, “Kids can’t learn and grow into healthy individuals if they’re hungry, and it is incumbent upon us to make sure that by the time the last bell rings at school, they’ve had at least two nutritious meals to support their health, learning, and development. We are fighting to make Healthy Meals for All a state priority so that every student in New York, no matter where they live or their family’s ability to pay, is guaranteed free breakfast and lunch at school. I’m proud of the far-reaching coalition of supporters Assemblymember González-Rojas and I have built for Healthy Meals for All, and we will continue to advocate for its inclusion in the final State budget.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the crisis of food insecurity in our state, a crisis that existed before the pandemic and has been exacerbated as a result of it. I have seen hundreds of my neighbors week after week line up at local food pantries as working families try their hardest to put food on the table. In a state as abundant as New York, no child should go to bed hungry. Universal school meals, or free breakfast and lunch in schools, is an economic and food justice issue. When Washington failed to continue this initiative, nearly a million students saw free school meals disappear overnight. Over 70 of my State legislative colleagues and I have signed a letter to Governor Hochul to fund universal school meals in our State budget, something that approximately 90% of New Yorkers support. It is time to boldly invest in addressing child and family hunger across New York,” said Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas, prime sponsor of the legislation.
“It’s time for everyone to have the same opportunity to succeed,” said Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages. “Universal free school meals mean no student will have to learn on an empty stomach. Creating a barrier to entry disproportionately impacts historically marginalized communities. To eliminate the stigma that exists, and to ensure that no kid goes hungry, we must ensure that free school meals are universally provided to our students.”
For nearly two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, federal funding ensured students universal access to free school meals. This ended in June 2022. As a result, more than 726,000 students across New York lost access to free meals.
One in seven children in New York experience hunger. Students experiencing hunger struggle to pay attention, have lower attendance, and are more likely to experience mental and physical health problems. These challenges affect all students and they disproportionately impact Black and Latinx children.
Existing free and reduced-price school meal programs do not reach far too many children who struggle with hunger, including students whose families make just enough money that they do not qualify for free school meals but are still struggling to make ends meet, and students in rural schools that are unable to use existing federal options to provide free meals to all. Inflation and the soaring cost of groceries has exacerbated the impact on students and their families.
In addition, many students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals hesitate to participate due to social stigmas against eating free meals, or slip through the cracks because of administrative burdens or language barriers that keep their families from applying in the first place.
“Experience has shown us time and time again that means-tested school meal programs leave too many kids behind,” said Andres Vives, Executive Director of Hunger Solutions New York. “Funding free school meals for all not only levels the playing field so all students can succeed, but also provides a lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet. It’s time for Governor Hochul to take the lead on ending childhood hunger in New York by including free school meals for all in this year’s State budget.”
“There is nothing more important than the health and wellness of our children,” said Kyle Belokopitsky, NYS PTA Executive Director. “Our children are hungry. More than half of our students live in some level of poverty. At a time when grocery prices are skyrocketing, ensuring all students can eat nutritious meals at school – at no cost to their families – is essential. Our current free and reduced-price meal programs leave out far too many families that are struggling, forcing families to take on school meal debt just to make sure their kids eat. Each and every day, a parent calls our office asking for help in feeding their child. Now is the time for New York to step up for students, parents, and families to feed them, and fund free school meals for all.”
“Hungry kids can’t learn,” NYSUT President, Andy Pallotta said. “Students without proper nourishment struggle to focus, have lower attendance than their peers, and are at greater risk of mental and physical health problems. This is an educational justice issue that New York should address.”
Support for universal free school meals is growing across the country. California, Maine, and Colorado have already funded healthy school meals for all students, and Massachusetts, Vermont, and Nevada have implemented one-year extensions of free meals for all. Many more states have active legislative campaigns for permanent universal free school meals and advocates continue to push for a nationwide free school meals for all program.
Funding universal free school meals in New York would ensure all students are well-nourished, no matter where they live. Nearly 2,000 additional schools, including many small rural schools with high poverty rates, would be able to provide universal free school meals for all students.
Ensuring all students are well-fed is proven to boost test scores and improve behavioral health while reducing racial health disparities and academic achievement gaps. The benefits also extend beyond the classroom. Households whose children attend schools with universal free school meals are three times less likely to experience food insecurity.
By enabling schools to purchase larger quantities, healthy meals for all lowers per-student lunch prices and eliminates millions in unpaid school meal debt each year. Overall, every dollar invested in providing healthy meals for students, generates at least two dollars in health, economic, equity, and environmental benefits.
“The benefits free school meals for all provides to students and parents are clear, but many people don’t realize that this policy also helps schools,” said Patrick Keneally, School Lunch Director at Capital Region BOCES Shared Foodservice Management and a member of the Public Policy & Legislation Committee at the New York School Nutrition Association. “By allowing school nutrition programs to feed students for free, the increased participation will help strengthen our purchasing power, as Food Service departments operate outside of the school district budget. This will allow directors to focus on new purchasing partnerships to provide NYS products, fresh produce, new industry relationships, and ultimately provide a higher quality meal to the students of the district. Bottom line: this policy benefits students, parents, and schools and it is time for New York’s leaders to step up and fill the gap where the federal government has fallen short.”
In 2017, New York City implemented free school meals for all students. Participation in the free meal program increased immediately, and a Syracuse University study of the policy’s impact on learning outcomes found that providing free meals to kids resulted in the same improvement in skills as 10-16 additional weeks of instruction.
“Every year there are debates about what we can do to improve student outcomes in our schools. As our experience in New York City shows, one of the best ways to dramatically increase student success is to provide free meals so students don’t have to go to class hungry,” said Liz Accles, Executive Director of Community Food Advocates. “For about a tenth of one percent of our State budget, we can dramatically reduce childhood hunger and boost academic success for all students. We call on our leaders in Albany to seize this opportunity and make sure kids across the State have the healthy meals they need to thrive in the classroom and beyond.”
There is significant and growing support for universal free school meals. 89 percent of New Yorkers agree that the State should make meals free for all students and 71 State legislators have signed a letter calling for New York to fund free school meals for all.
Learn more about the Healthy School Meals for All campaign and opportunities to support free school meals for all New York students at https://schoolmealsforallny.org/.
About the Healthy School Meals for All Coalition
Community Food Advocates (CFA) is a New York City nonprofit that advocates to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to healthy, affordable, plentiful, and culturally appropriate foods. In 2017, CFA led a coalition of over 200 organizations and elected officials across New York City and State to secure universal free school lunch (UFL) for all of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students. The campaign, Lunch 4 Learning (L4L), has since built on the foundation of city-wide universal free school lunch with high impact policy changes. We are eager to ensure all NYS students are guaranteed free school meals.Hunger Solutions New York is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger and has worked for over thirty years to maximize school meals throughout New York State. Their targeted outreach and technical assistance has supported over 60 percent of NY schools providing free school meals for all students. Hunger Solutions New York also advocates for federal and state policies to improve access to school meals and has successfully advanced state policies to eliminate the reduced-price copayment, establish statewide unpaid meal balance policies and improve access to school breakfast in high-poverty schools.