Legislators and advocacy groups convened at the New York State Capitol on Monday, January 29th, to rally in favor of providing free school meals to all students in the state.
Last year, both federal eligibility expansions and state budget subsidies increased the number of students who could participate. However, the ultimate objective is to achieve universal access to free meals.
Emily Ledyard, an advocate who benefited from the program during her school years, shared her personal journey, emphasizing the program’s importance in ensuring students’ focus remains on their education rather than their next meal.
“My hope is for students to not have to worry about where their next meal comes from, they can focus on their studies and not worry about what friend is going to share lunch with them,” Ledyard remarked.
She highlighted the critical choice many students face between accruing school debt and facing hunger.
Despite the expansion last year, which provided meal benefits to over 347,000 students, an estimated 300,000 students remain ineligible due to gaps in coverage.
Melinda Person, President of New York State United Teachers said, “We have hungry kids in our classrooms, there is no mistake about that; in 2024, in New York State this is unacceptable.”
Andres Vives, the Associate Executive Director of Hunger Solutions New York, criticized the means-testing approach for free school meals, arguing for a more inclusive strategy similar to other educational resources.
“We believe that means-testing children for free school meals is wrong,” Vives stated, advocating for equal access to meals as is the case with textbooks and school transportation.
The push for universal free meals is not without its challenges, with current federal guidelines requiring at least 25% of students in a school to be eligible for free or reduced meals for the school to participate.
This results in more than 650 schools in New York State still relying on an individual income threshold to assess eligibility, even though they have students who meet the criteria for the updated program.
The drive for universal free school meals garners backing from both political sides.
Republican Senator Jim Tedisco, a former teacher, recollected instances when he heard students’ stomachs growling in class due to their lack of food.
Tedisco said, “There’s a whole bunch of things that impact a kid’s ability to learn, and food and nutrition and being stressed out is certainly one of them.”
Queens Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas also highlighted the urgency of addressing the issue by providing free meals to children from low-income families.
Gonzalez-Rojas remarked, “We know it is low-income children who are most impacted, but they exist across every neighborhood across New York State.”