Statewide coalition pleads case to legislative committees for free school meals

Feb. 8—ALBANY — Several representatives from the Healthy School Meals for All New York Kids coalition pleaded their case on Wednesday to include free school meals for all students in the state's fiscal year 2024 budget.

They appeared before the New York State Senate Committee on Finance and the New York State Assembly Committee on Ways and Means as part of an elementary and secondary education joint budget hearing.

The speakers included representatives from Hunger Solutions New York, New York State United Teachers, New York State PTA, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, School Administrators Association of New York State, Conference of Big 5 School Districts, Buffalo Public School District, New York State Council of School Superintendents, New York State School Boards Association, Rural Schools Association of New York State, and New York School Nutrition Association.

Among those addressing the committee was Jessica Pino-Goodspeed from Hunger Solutions New York and co-leader of the Healthy School Meals for All New York Kids coalition. The coalition includes more than 250 anti-hunger, education, health, agriculture and equity-focused organizations who work alongside students, parents, school administrators and other concerned New Yorkers.

"Together, we are advocating for New York state to establish and fund statewide universal free school meals in the FY 2024 state budget," Ms. Pino-Goodspeed said.

For 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.

"The expiration of federal funding for universal free school meals this year has been devastating for New Yorkers. Across the state, 726,000 students at nearly 2,000 schools lost access to the meals they depend on to thrive in the classroom. As inflation drives grocery prices to historic highs, this loss also hits families and school districts hard," she said.

Several organizations had recently joined with elected officials to call on Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul to fund free school meals for all New York students in her fiscal year 2024 budget. To provide free breakfast and lunch for all New York students, the state would need to make an annual commitment of approximately $190 million to $200 million.

Ms. Pino-Goodspeed said the financial commitment is a solid investment for the betterment of students.

"Hunger inhibits a student's ability to learn. Students experiencing hunger struggle to focus and engage, have lower school attendance than their peers, and are at greater risk of mental and physical health problems," she said. "As food insecurity compromises children's capacity to develop, socialize and learn, it sets the stage for poor health and economic consequences later in life. These challenges affect all students and they disproportionately impact Black and Latino children."

She said providing free healthy meals to all students "safeguards children from hunger and promotes good nutrition. School meals mitigate food insecurity among low-income students, and are also the healthiest meals children consume, across all income levels."

Ms. Pino-Goodspeed added that providing free healthy meals improves students' attendance and behavior, reduces tardiness, and prepares the students for academic success.

"Students who eat breakfast at school perform better on standardized tests, and score higher in spelling, reading and math," she said. "Additionally, participation in school breakfast reduces visits to the school nurse, improves students' mental health, and reduces their risk for anxiety and depression."

She said means-testing for free school meals was a stumbling block for many families.

"The return to a tiered payment system creates undue barriers to school meals for many New Yorkers, including children whose families struggle to meet basic needs, but do not qualify for free school meals. A family of four making just $51,400 is over-income for free school meals. Statewide, an estimated 470,000 children are not income-eligible for free school meals, despite living in households earning less than a living wage," Ms. Pino-Goodspeed said.

Those who qualify for free or reduced meals may not always participate, she said.

"When students perceive school meals as only for children from low-income households, many decline to participate, despite their hunger. Participation drops as students get older and more aware of stigma. Stigma, administrative burdens, and literacy and language barriers also keep many eligible families from submitting school meal applications," Ms. Pino-Goodspeed said.

The return to paid meals also brings with it the potential for school lunch program debt.

"This year, school nutrition directors anticipate their debt will surpass pre-pandemic levels — an estimated $24.9 million statewide. School meal debt burdens local school districts administratively and financially, as schools become de facto debt collectors — jeopardizing critical relationships with parents — and must reconcile uncollected debt at the end of the school year, often at the expense of general funds that could support other important educational supports," she said.

She said the Healthy School Meals for All New York Kids coalition strongly urged funding in the 2024 budget.

"By devoting an estimated $275 per student — about 0.1% of our budget — to feeding our kids, we can advance equity for students, families and schools," she said. "This is a concrete step toward supporting students' education and health while also improving school nutrition finances and operations."