More than 80 state legislators seek extension of free meal program for students

Jun. 5—MASSENA — More than 80 New York state legislators, along with the Food Research and Action Center, are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend a program that provides free meals to all students.

The legislators signed a letter from state Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas, D-East Elmhurst, and state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, calling on New York's congressional representatives to extend the USDA's nationwide Child Nutrition Program waiver authority. The move would allow universal school meals through the 2022-23 school year and summer meals in the upcoming summer break.

As it stands, school districts would no longer be able to serve free meals to all students after June 30.

USDA waivers had originally been put in place toward the end of the 2019-20 school year. The authority was established through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and was extended for fiscal year 2021 through the Continuing Appropriations Act 2021 and Other Extension Act. It was then extended again to June 30, 2022, through the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act.

Usually, only low-income families are eligible and there are restrictions on where families can pick up food and how much they can take, but the USDA has waived these limits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The waivers allow for safe meal distribution sites that serve all children for free, regardless of income. All children and youths 18 and younger can receive meals at no cost, even if they're not a student in their local school district.

State legislators said that the expiration of the waiver will leave more than 2,000 schools and nearly 800,000 students in New York without access to free school meals.

Assemblywoman González-Rojas and Sen. Hinchey had advocated for the funding allocation in the New York state budget to cover the cost for a year, but it was not included in the state's final fiscal year 2023 budget. The legislation would have provided free breakfast and lunch to all students in schools.

"In one of the richest nations in the world that has more billionaires than it did previously, it would be a tragedy to allow the Child Nutrition Program to expire. Hundreds of thousands of children and thousands of schools depend on this flexibility by our federal government to feed hungry students every day. We urge our congressional leaders and delegation to advocate for the extension of this authority. Every child that goes hungry is a policy failure. While we will continue to fight at the state level to cover these costs, we ask our federal partners to intervene and do what is right for all of New York's students," Assemblywoman González-Rojas said in a prepared statement.

"Ensuring our kids have access to nutritious meals at school is the most effective thing we can do to fight the hunger in their bellies and set them on a path for success," Sen. Hinchey said in a prepared statement. "The Child Nutrition Program has been a lifeline for working families and a silver lining in helping us create a more equitable food system that recognizes the incredible role of New York's farms in expanding food access. Letting this program expire will devastate our communities, and that's not an option we can accept. I'm proud of the coalition we've built in support of universal school meals, and I will continue to urge our Congressional leaders to act so that every student in New York is guaranteed a healthy meal."

The Food Research & Action Center, a national nonprofit working to eradicate poverty-related hunger and undernutrition in the United States, also urged the USDA to continue the program.

"School meals are a critical resource for struggling families who are being affected by the pandemic," FRAC President Luis Guardia said in a prepared statement. "FRAC's latest report on school meal participation reveals that, of the 62 large districts surveyed in the United States, 98% identified supply chain disruptions and 95% identified labor shortages as challenges during the 2021-2022 school year. The challenges would be even greater if not for the nationwide child nutrition waivers that USDA has been able to offer to support school nutrition operations and access to school meals."

"In order to support schools as they continue to grapple with supply chain disruptions, FRAC calls on Congress to give USDA the tools it needs to respond to the ongoing crisis created by the pandemic and extend USDA nationwide waiver authority through the 2022 — 2023 school year in the next legislative vehicle," he said.