Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids is a statewide campaign working to ensure all students across New York State have secure, equal access to school meals at no cost.
Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids
1 in 7 kids in New York experience hunger, disproportionately Black and Latinx children. Hunger has lifelong effects on children’s health, wellness, and productivity. 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.
School meals can account for over half of a child’s daily calories. Across all income levels, research shows kids receive their healthiest meals at school. Providing healthy school meals at no cost for every student in New York will reduce food insecurity, advance racial equity, support learning, and academic achievement and improve health and nutrition. It will also increase participation in school meal programs by eliminating social stigmas against taking free school meals and removing structural barriers that keep kids who qualify from participating in existing programs.
The benefits of HSMFA extend well beyond the impact on individual children and families. HSMFA also improves school nutrition finances and buying power, streamlines administration of the program, and eliminates school meal debt. Every dollar invested in school meals provides $2 in health, equity, environmental, and economic benefits.
Many schools in New York offer free school meals to all students through a federal option called Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) that is available to schools and districts that serve a large number of low-income students. However, small schools in areas where poverty is prevalent but less concentrated are often ineligible for CEP.
HSMFA NY Kids would level the playing field, guaranteeing access to free school meals for all students in New York, regardless of where they live. It would also provide much-needed certainty and stability for schools participating in CEP. Those schools would know they can continue providing access to free school meals for all of their students even if they become ineligible for CEP in the future, or other policy shifts jeopardize their current operations.
HSMFA NY Kids strengthens school meal programs for everyone. Many families in NY are struggling to make ends meet, earning just above the income guidelines for free school meals, but still less than a living wage. A family of four making just $51,400 is over-income for free school meals. Statewide, an estimated 470,000 children are ineligible for free school meals but live in households earning less than a living wage. At a time when inflation is causing grocery store prices to skyrocket, receiving school breakfast and lunch at no cost is a significant support, saving families an estimated $140 per child in grocery spending each month, based on average meal costs.
HSMFA also increases participation in school meal programs. This is important because higher participation among all students improves the financial viability of school meal programs and allows schools to invest in innovative models that further improve their meal service, like farm-to-school programs, breakfast after the bell, and other best practices.
When school meals are perceived as only for children from low-income households, many students in need decline to participate, despite their hunger. Making school meals free for everyone removes social stigma, meaning students who need meals the most are more likely to eat school meals.
Through a Healthy School Meals for All program, all New York schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program would provide free meals to all students, regardless of income. The federal government would continue to reimburse schools based on the number of meals served and federal eligibility guidelines. The State would provide supplemental reimbursement for meals not fully reimbursed through the federal government.
The federal government stepped up during the pandemic to ensure free school meals for all children across the country. However, this ended in June 2022, and there is no permanent policy in place. Advocates continue to push for nationwide Healthy School Meals for All.
Hungry children can’t wait. New York State can act now to ensure that all children throughout the state have access to free school meals as soon as the 2023-24 school year.
This type of state policy is not unprecedented. As of July 2023, seven states have established permanent statewide HSMFA policies.
As a result of our HSMFA NY Kids 2022-2023 advocacy, the enacted FY2024 State Budget included an additional $134.6M to expand access to free school meals. However, anything short of full funding for universal free school meals won’t reach all students whose families are struggling to make ends meet, perpetuates a system based on arbitrary income thresholds for individual families or schools, and created barriers and benefit cliffs that jeopardize food access for vulnerable families.
We are advocating for New York to include a permanent HSMFA NY Kids program in the FY2025 state budget. We are urging Governor Hochul to include this policy in her Executive Budget, released in January 2024. Then, the Assembly and Senate should include the policy in their respective one-house budgets, and keep it intact through negotiations on the final budget, due by April 1, 2024. If HSMFA ls is established and funded in the FY2025 state budget, schools could begin providing free meals for all as soon as the 2024-25 school year.
As of July 2023, seven states–California, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Minnesota, Vermont, and Michigan–have passed legislation to make HSMFA a reality in their states. These states have stepped up to recognize the critical role of school meals in reducing food insecurity, advancing racial equity, supporting learning and academic achievement, and improving child health and nutrition. Click here for a map of current statewide policies and actions.
New York has been a leader in expanding free school meals and should continue to lead by enacting a permanent HSMFA NY Kids statewide policy.
The most important thing we can do to support HSMFA is show our leaders that New Yorkers support this critical policy.
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