August 7, 2023

Here’s why Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages is urging schools to join this universal free meal program

Posted August 6, 2023

Read on LI Herald

By Juan Lasso

Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages and her colleague from Queens, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, gathered hunger advocates, teachers and community members at the Valley Stream Forest Road Elementary School on July 26 to urge qualifying school districts to opt into the state’s federally backed Community Eligibility Program, which provides free meals to students in low-income areas.

Beginning in 2020, breakfasts and hot lunches at school were guaranteed to millions of public-school students across the country at no cost to families, thanks to the federal government’s pandemic-inspired universal meal program. But by the start of the 2022 school year, funding had dried up, the program was eliminated, and more than 700,000 students lost access to free school meals.

In the program’s wake, the idea of a state-backed universal school meal program began to gain traction in Albany. Soon enough, lawmakers, citing the increasing incidence of hunger in schools, successfully pushed Gov. Kathy Hochul to allocate an unprecedented $134 million as part of this year’s state budget to fund free school meals.

While achieving a state-funded universal meal program that is as comprehensive as the one seen during the pandemic is still a way off, lawmakers have come as close as they’ve been. The new funding mechanism will allow low-income schools taking part in the Community Eligibility Program to be reimbursed by the state for the cost of all meals not currently covered by the federal government.

This effectively eliminates any financial barriers that once prevented qualifying schools from opting into the program. It’s a financial buffer that Solages says is nothing but good news for parents and students.

“Normally, parents must fill out an application and submit their income to qualify their children for free lunch and breakfast,” Solages explained, “but by schools joining this free meal service, there is no need for an application. Every student enrolled in a school that participates in the CEP is entitled to a free lunch and breakfast.”

“This is a massive expansion,” Gonzalez-Rojas added. “We will now feed up to 81 percent of students across New York state, and in Nassau County alone, up to 10,000 additional students who didn’t previously qualify.”

For now, however, those students most likely will not include any in Valley Stream school districts, at least according to current CEP eligibility guidelines.

To qualify for the CEP program, at least 40 percent of students in a school district must be eligible for free school meals. None of the Valley Stream districts appear to meet that threshold, though that may change by the upcoming school year, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently proposing to lower the eligibility threshold to 25 percent ahead of September. 

For her part, Solages is pushing for those school districts that are currently eligible to opt in before the application window closes on Aug. 31. And encourage those who are potentially eligible to apply and see.

“School districts need to act fast in gaining state funding to properly execute this jump into equality among children in public schools,” Solages said. “By having free school meals for everyone, it eliminates the stigma of free lunch that students normally deal with.”

“I want to be clear that hunger is not just about food, it’s not just about nutrition, it’s about trauma,” said Rebecca Sanin, the President of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, who was also in attendance last week. “Not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, and when, is a form of trauma, and it will damage our babies, our children and our future.”

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Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages spoke at the Forest Road School in Valley Stream to urge qualifying school districts to apply for the CEP universal meal program amid new state funding to pay for the cost of school meals not covered by the federal government.

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