Skip to main content

Report Signals Urgent Need to Provide Free School Meals for All Students

Study Finds That Universal No-Cost School Meals Reverse This Trend, as Advocates Urge Governor Hochul & the Legislature to Ensure Full Funding in the Final State Budget.

Fewer NY Kids Are Eating School Meals

Participation in school meals decreased across New York State in the 2022–2023 school year, according to a new report released by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). Following the expiration of federal funding in June 2022, hundreds of thousands of New York students lost access to free school breakfast and lunch as many schools returned to providing free meals based on students’ household income in the 2022-2023 school year.

The report reveals a decline in participation relative to the previous school year; 12.4 percent fewer students ate school breakfast and 4.3 percent fewer ate school lunch. Nearly 793,000 children in New York participated in school breakfast and just over 1.5 million participated in school lunch on an average day during the 2022–2023 school year.

The drop in school meal participation in New York aligns with trends observed in states across the country. Nationwide, FRAC’s report reveals that participation in school breakfast decreased by 1.2 million children (7.7 percent), and school lunch decreased by 1.8 million children (6 percent) in the 2022-2023 school year compared to 2021-2022.

“It’s no surprise we’re seeing sharp declines in school meal participation in states where kids abruptly lost access to universal school meals,” said Liz Accles, Executive Director of Community Food Advocates.

“Without universal school meals, students fear being labeled by the poverty stigma long associated with the program if they eat school meals. This threatens student mental health, and means kids are sitting out of the lunch line despite their hunger.”

Universal School Meals Policies Reach More Kids

The report notes a striking exception: States that funded and implemented state-level policies sustaining universal free school meals saw increases in participation. The four states with permanent universal school meals policies starting in the 2022-2023 school year—California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—each saw an increase in school breakfast and lunch participation that year compared to the 2021–2022 school year, ranging from 3.7 percent to 7.1 percent.

The data are clear: providing school meals at no cost to all students is an effective strategy to ensure the children who need it most are getting the nutrition they need to learn and thrive.

The benefits of universal free school meals policies extend beyond increases in participation, according to another report from FRAC released earlier this year. State agency administrators in the eight states implementing this policy in the current school year have reported reductions in child hunger, elimination of stigma associated with school meals, and improved academic achievement and behavior among students.

The data are clear: providing school meals at no cost to all students is an effective strategy to ensure the children who need it most are getting the nutrition they need to learn and thrive.

These findings signal the urgent need for Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids. New York must take action now by fully funding universal school meals in the upcoming state budget.

In last year’s state budget, New York expanded access to free school meals through the federal Community Eligibility Provision. This investment was an important step in the right direction, with more than 347,000 students newly gaining access. Still, more than 320,000 students in nearly 660 schools were left out of this expansion, largely in high cost of living areas where housing and food costs are outpacing salaries. In schools without universal meals, a family of four making just $56,000 a year—far below a living wage in New York—is not eligible for free school meals.

“New York’s dramatic decline in school meal participation cannot be ignored, especially at a time when nearly one in six children in our state are struggling with food insecurity,” said Andrés Vives, Executive Director of Hunger Solutions New York.

“Without a true universal free school meals policy that is available to all students every school day, schools are left to operate a program that leaves too many struggling families behind. It’s time for New York to close the gap and ensure all children have equal access to healthy school meals at no cost.”

“Now is the time for New York to pass Healthy School Meals for All and become the ninth state to ensure that all their students are in the classroom well-nourished and ready to learn,” said Crystal FitzSimons, Director of Child Nutrition Programs and Policy for the Food Research & Action Center.

Healthy School Meals for All is the path forward to ensuring a more food secure, healthy and affordable New York. With final budget negotiations underway, advocates are urging the Governor and legislative leaders to prioritize this investment in New York’s students, schools, and families.

Read the full report

Take Action TODAY!

Join us by telling NYS lawmakers to include full funding for statewide Healthy School Meals for All in the final state budget:

  • Call your representatives in Albany: Use this toolkit to call the Governor and your representatives, including scripts you can use to express your support for universal school meals and instructions on how to call.
  • Send a letter directly to Governor Hochul, leaders in the legislature, and your representatives with just one click.
  • Elevate #Meals4AllNY on social media: This is a critical time to show strong, grassroots support for Healthy School Meals for All. Use our social media toolkit for sample posts and graphics.