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Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids

What is Healthy School Meals for All (HSMFA)?

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.

Why focus on school meals?

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.

My school already has free school meals, why do we need this statewide?

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 or unable to make it work financially. Around 2,000 schools and 726,000 students lost access to free school meals when pandemic-related flexibilities expired at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

HSMFA 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.

Wouldn’t HSMFA cover families who can afford to pay for school meals?

HSMFA 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.

How does HSMFA address school meal stigma?

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.

How would this work in New York?

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.

Why are we asking the state for HSMFA instead of 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, and a recently introduced federal bill could allow New York to provide free meals to all students at little to no cost to the state through a statewide CEP option. However, these proposed changes have not been passed, and are far from guaranteed.

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. California, Colorado, and Maine have established permanent statewide HSMFA policies.

What is the policy process for getting this done in New York?

We are advocating for New York to include HSMFA in the FY2024 state budget, to be negotiated and unveiled in early 2023. As a first step in this process, we are urging Governor Hochul to include this policy in her Executive Budget, released in January. 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, 2023. If HSMFA ls is established and funded in the FY2024 state budget, schools could begin providing free meals for all as soon as the 2023-24 school year. 

What other states have adopted free school meals for all?

California, Colorado, and Maine have passed legislation to make HSMFA a reality in their states. Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts have passed one-year extensions of free school meals for all in the 2022-2023 school year.

Many other states are considering similar bills. These states have stepped up to recognize the critical role of school meals for reducing food insecurity, advancing racial equity, supporting learning and academic achievement, and improving child health and nutrition.

New York has been a leader in expanding free school meals and should continue to lead by enacting this statewide policy.

How can I show my support for HSMFA?

The most important thing we can do to support HSMFA is show our leaders that New Yorkers support this critical policy. Use this tool to send a message to your representatives in Albany to let them know you support HSMFA.

Fill out this form to get updates and action alerts about the campaign. If you are affiliated with an organization, school, or other official entity, you can sign on to be publicly listed in support of the campaign.

Share your story about how free school meals for all OR not having access to free school meals has impacted your family or community. Your stories and input are compelling to help lawmakers understand the importance of this policy.

Take Action

Learn about the different ways that you can get involved today.

We are advocating for New York to establish and fund Healthy School Meals for All in the FY2024 state budget.

Learn more about the budget process and how you can get involved.