Well Fed and Well Read: The Case for Healthy School Meals for All
By: Julia McCarthy and Bronwyn Starr, Senior Program Officers, New York Health Foundation
Learning on an empty stomach is nearly impossible, but this is the reality for too many students across New York. In June, a federal policy that provided free school meals for all students during the pandemic expired, forcing hundreds of thousands of food-insecure students to go to school hungry.
Since September, approximately 2,000 schools serving more than 700,000 students across New York State have been unable to provide free school meals to all. Schools have reverted to collecting meal fees as food prices continue to climb. Families that earn just above the income limit for free meals, but less than a living wage, have been hit hard.
The health and financial benefits of investing in free school meals are enormous: students’ physical health, mental well-being, and academic performance all improve when all students have access to free meals. Healthcare costs drop when school meals are free, and schools also save money by lowering the cost they pay per meal through larger bulk discounts.
This year, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have committed to providing healthy school meals for all. New York should join this group of leading states. We have plenty to build on. The New York Health Foundation and others have supported initiatives that have helped our State become a national leader in improving school food and nutrition security:
- In 2017, New York City made school lunch free for all of its 1.1 million students, regardless of income.
- In 2018, New York State launched a “No Student Goes Hungry” program, which doubled its funding for farm-to-school grants to $1.5 million annually and raised reimbursement for schools to purchase locally produced foods from farms.
Other cities, including Rochester, Albany, and Yonkers, also provide universal free school meals, but approximately 30% of all public school students elsewhere in the State, including Long Island and rural areas, don’t have the same access.
There is widespread support for free, healthy school meals for all. Hunger Solutions New York and Community Food Advocates have launched a statewide coalition of more than 180 organizations calling for universal free school meals to be funded in the State budget. The influential New York State Educational Conference Board, a consortium of the seven leading education associations in the State, has voiced support for universal school meals, and Assembly Member González-Rojas and Senator Hinchey have introduced bills that would ensure no child goes hungry when at school.
New Yorkers who want to support these efforts should share their stories now so that decision-makers understand just how far-reaching the benefits of free school meals were during the pandemic, as well as the devastating impacts of losing access to those meals this year.
A rising tide lifts all boats – support for free school meals for all will generate a ripple effect: every dollar invested in school meals provides $2 in health, economic, equity, and environmental benefits for our entire state.
No child can thrive on an empty stomach, and students can’t learn if they are undernourished. Schools provide textbooks and other necessary supplies free of charge, but mealtime remains the one time of day when children are systemically discriminated by income. We’ve seen the benefits of providing healthy school meals for all. Now is the time for New York to take the lead and provide permanent State funding so none of our children go hungry at school.