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Lawmakers, advocates, school administrators, parents & teachers call for governor to fully fund free school meals for all students in budget


Fri, Mar 24th 2023 04:00 pm

Say more than 78,000 students in Western New York would benefit from HSMFA

Submitted by FeedMore WNY

With $280 million in funding for universal free school meals included in both the Senate and Assembly budget proposals, legislators, school administrators, parents and teachers from the Buffalo-area joined the Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids Coalition at Springville Elementary School on Friday to call on Gov. Kathy Hochul to address the crisis of childhood hunger in schools by fully funding a statewide, permanent “Healthy School Meals for All” program in the fiscal year 2024 state budget.

New York State Sen. Patrick Gallivan said, “Students cannot succeed physically or academically if they are hungry. It’s time for New York state to ensure that all students have access to free, healthy meals while in school. A universal program supports all students, regardless of income or location, and will end the stigma often associated with the current school lunch program.”

New York State Sen. Sean Ryan said "We all know how important it is to give kids the tools they need to succeed in school, but what we sometimes forget is that a full stomach is an important prerequisite to learning. There are children in every part of New York dealing with food insecurity, but in a country with the resources we have here in America, every hungry child is a policy failure. Making sure every student in New York has two healthy meals each day is an impactful action we can take to immediately improve the lives and educational outcomes of thousands of children across New York."

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 and school meal debt skyrocketed. In the Hudson Valley region, nearly 146,500 students lost access to free school meals this year.

States across the country – including California, Colorado, Nevada, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont – have already implemented “Healthy School Meals for All,” and nearly 90% of New Yorkers support the policy.

On March 14, the Senate and Assembly released budget proposals including $280 million in funding to restore free school meals for all students. Now it is up to Hochul to ensure HSMFA is fully funded in the FY2024 state budget.

“I am very proud to advocate alongside my Assembly majority colleagues to ensure that all students have access to a universal free, nutritious meal program while at school,” Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said. “When you’re hungry, it’s hard to concentrate and focus on academics. Food should not be something students need to worry about while at school.”

Assembly member Jessica González-Rojas said, “More than 78,000 students in Western New York would benefit from healthy school meals for all. The school districts in this region would also see school debt alleviated as a result of this proposal. Universal school meals is a public health and economic relief proposal that would support our schools, families and, most importantly our children. I thank all of the advocates and school leaders in this region for coming together as we demand that Gov. Hochul fund healthy school meals in our state budget. This is a win-win proposal, and it’s time to put our kids first.”

Assembly member Jon D. Rivera said, “When federal waivers expired in June that provided free school meals for students, more than 700,000 kids lost crucial access to educational meal support. In Western New York alone, more than 78,000 students experienced the loss of that meal access. I fought hard alongside my colleagues in the NYS Assembly majority to ensure that universal school meals are included in this year’s state budget, and I want to thank the Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids Coalition for aiding lawmakers in that fight.”

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 Ossining UFSD and many other suburban and small rural schools with high poverty rates, would be able to provide universal free school meals for all students.

“Experience has shown us time and time again that means-tested school meal programs leave too many kids behind,” said Andrés 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. Our representatives in the Senate and Assembly have made feeding our kids a priority. Now we call on Gov. Hochul to alleviate food insecurity and eliminate school meal debt by fully funding ‘Healthy School Meals for All’ in this year’s state budget.”

Dan Egan, executive director with Feeding NYS, said, “It is our view that all New York children, regardless of income or circumstance, deserve healthy food at school. Research shows that universal school meals improve academic performance and health outcomes for children while reducing hunger and food insecurity. Instead of trapping kids in meal debt, New York should join the movement of states around the country in guaranteeing healthy school meals for all.”

“Healthy meals for all students should not come down to which schools can fit it in the budget and which can’t,” said James Bialasik, superintendent of Springville-Griffith Institute CSD

“Access to healthy meals at school helps children’s’ brains and their hearts,” said Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls City School District and a member of the American Heart Association’s superintendent council. “Science shows kids who eat school meals every day have better diets and are less likely to develop chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes than kids who don’t. It’s time for New York to invest in the health of our next generation.”

“On behalf of our 220,000 PTA members, and our 2.6 million school children, ‘Healthy School Meals for All’ NYS students remains our highest priority for this legislative session,” NYS Parent Teacher Association Treasurer Patricia Frazier said. “Our children – in every school district in NYS – are hungry. Many students and families do not have money to buy breakfast or lunch. Many children and their families are too embarrassed to ask for help. We are excited that HSMFA is funded in both the Senate and Assembly one-house budgets.”

NYS Parent Teacher Association Executive Director Kyle Belokopitsky said, “On Sept. 7, 2022, when our NYS students went back to school, 726,000 children lost their access to free breakfast and lunch. We know hungry kids can’t learn. Students experiencing hunger struggle to focus, have lower attendance than their peers, and are at greater risk of mental and physical health problems. Now is the time for New York to act. We call on Gov. Hochul to move ‘Healthy School Meals for All’ forward and include it in the final enacted budget. Let’s say ‘Yes’ to our kids – and stop child hunger.”

“We all know that hungry kids are not kids who are able to do their best at home or in school,” said Jessica Schuster, Springville-Griffith CSD BOE member, parent, and associate deputy comptroller of Erie County. “Feeding our students is just one way public education can continue to equalize the playing field for all. We believe we can help end the stigma around poverty in our school district, by feeding every child regardless of need. At the end of the day, sometimes the most important things we teach aren’t easily identified as part of the traditional curriculum, but are just as important. Free school meals for all in New York state would be a generational investment, which would pay dividends for years to come.”

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.

The current means-tested school meal programs leave many behind, including families who do not qualify for free school meals, but are struggling to make ends meet; students who qualify, but do not participate due to stigma and administrative barriers; and students in suburban and rural schools that often cannot leverage the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to provide free meals for all.

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. 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 six to 10 additional weeks of instruction.

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.

Providing free school meals to all students is especially important because it eliminates administrative burdens and social stigmas that hold students back from participating in existing programs.

Tara A. Ellis, president and CEO of FeedMore WNY, said, “In Western New York, roughly one out of every five children lacks consistent access to enough nutritious food to lead a healthy life, but food insecurity is three times less likely in households where children attend a school that provides free meals for all. Providing children with the nutrition they need is essential to their academic success and social well-being. Universal school meals for all will make a dramatic difference in the lives of Western New York families.”

Scott Johnson, Sweet Home BOE and co-chair of the legislative team for the Erie County Association of School Boards, said, “We all know that ‘Healthy School Meals for All’ is the right thing to do. The Senate and Assembly agree with us. Help us convince the governor.”

Chris Cerrone, Springville-GI BOE president, said, “Providing universal free school meals to all students in New York should be a very high priority; besides the obvious health benefits, students who are properly fed have better academic performance, and behavior improves as well.”

Laura Watson, director of culinary services for the Springville-Griffith Institute Central School District, said, “We have nutrition professionals at every corner of K-12 schools all across the state and country providing top-notch meals and nutritional building blocks that are vital to a child’s health and well-being. We can offer nutritionally sound food from local farmers and support them. It’s an easy decision when you take away the financial worry, so parents can focus on shifting their budget to other needs like medicine and clothing. In a world already full of worry and anxiety, let’s choose to do the kindest thing we can for our children and fulfill their basic need – food! The rest will fall into place. I can attest to that firsthand, since we have made the shift of offering every child a free breakfast and lunch. The ability to learn starts with proper nutrition. Don’t we owe that to our children, families and community? We have to advocate for our students. If we don’t, who will? Since we started free meals on Jan. 17, we have been able to shift those concerns and carry that burden for our families. How do I know that? I have had those candid conversations before, and our free meals transition with families, and our staff has gotten an abundance of ‘Thank yous’ from our children across the district. So, my question is, ‘Why not offer free meals?’ ”

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

The Healthy School Meals for All Coalition is a group of 250-PLUS organizations led by Hunger Solutions New York and Community Food Advocates with funding from the New York Health Foundation (NYHealth).

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” has since built on the foundation of citywide universal free school lunch with high-impact policy changes.

Hunger Solutions New York is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger and has worked for over 30 years to maximize school meals throughout New York state. Its targeted outreach and technical assistance has supported over 60% of New York 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.

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