More than 180 organizations urge governor to fund healthy meals for students in 2024 budget

Nov. 15—MASSENA — More than 180 organizations are urging Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul to fund healthy meals for students in her fiscal year 2024 state budget.

The Healthy School Meals for All Coalition includes education, parent and teacher groups, labor unions, anti-hunger, nutrition, health and equity advocates, led by Hunger Solutions New York and Community Food Advocates with funding from the New York Health Foundation.

They're all calling on the governor to support the Healthy School Meals for All campaign to provide permanent, healthy school meals for all students.

"This fall, hundreds of thousands of children in New York lost access to guaranteed healthy meals that leveled the playing field for them and their families," Sherry Tomasky, director of public affairs at Hunger Solutions New York said in a statement. "Students without proper nourishment 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 live up to our state motto and push ever upward, treating healthy school meals for all as the educational justice and public health issue that it is."

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.

Funding healthy school meals for all in the fiscal year 2024 state budget would ensure breakfast and lunch at no cost for all students each school day. 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.

Studies have shown a direct link between healthy meals and improved academic performance, boosted attendance and better classroom behavior. Households with children attending schools with federally funded meals for all are three times less likely to experience food insecurity and free school breakfast and lunch would eliminate an estimated $24.9 million per year in unpaid school meal debt from districts' balance sheets.

"It doesn't matter if you're in Massena, Manhattan or Mineola, a full belly is just as foundational to being ready to learn as a full backpack. Well-fed students are more focused, are better able to learn and feel supported. In New York, we believe in giving every child the same chance to succeed and providing equal access to nutritious meals goes hand-in-hand with that," Andrew Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers said in a statement.

There's an increasing amount of support for free meals for all students, with 89% of New Yorkers agreeing that it should happen. In addition, more than 150 leading state education associations, anti-hunger groups, child nutrition advocates and school districts signed on to a letter urging Gov. Hochul to include the free meals in the state budget.

"During the height of the pandemic and after, schools used federal help to rise to the occasion and ensure every student had access to healthy meals. The abrupt end of this program has led to frustration among families and increased financial strain during a time of economic uncertainty. School leaders agree that a continuation of free breakfast and lunch availability for all students provides equity to the school community and ensures no student is unable to learn because of hunger," Dr. Charles Dedrick, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents said in a statement.

"NYSSBA is proud to partner with the statewide Healthy Meals for All NY Kids Coalition on this important priority for our students. Universal school meals programs reduce the stigma for students unable to afford breakfast and lunch each day. They also help school districts feed more students during the school day, reduce paperwork for school staff and assist districts in streamlining their meal service operations. A statewide program would help school districts ensure that every student has access to healthy, nutritious meals," Robert Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said in a statement.

New York isn't alone. California and Maine have already funded healthy school meals for all students. Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland currently have active legislative campaigns for permanent universal free school meals and advocates continue to push for a nationwide free school meals for all program.