January 5, 2023

The State Should Support Free School Meals for all LI Students

By Rebecca Sanin and Bob Vecchio

January 4th, 2023

Guest essay

Read on Newsday

A quiet crisis is playing out in Long Island schools that no one is talking about. This fall, a federal policy guaranteeing free, healthy school meals for all students nationwide expired. New Yorkers across the state are feeling the impact, but we’ve been hit especially hard here on Long Island, where nearly 250,000 students lost access to free meals, seemingly overnight. 

Almost 600,000 children in New York struggle with food insecurity, and socioeconomically disadvantaged children are disproportionately impacted. Credit: Randee Daddona

But there’s good news — we can fix this. By devoting about 0.1% of next year’s state budget to funding free school meals for all New York students, our leaders in Albany can ensure our kids have the healthy meals they need to succeed in the classroom and in life. 

Almost 600,000 children in New York struggle with food insecurity, and socioeconomically disadvantaged children are disproportionately impacted. For the past two years, federal COVID-19 funding helped fill the gap, but since that funding expired this fall.

The recent federal omnibus bill made the problem even worse by cutting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which will increase food insecurity for many families.

We’ve seen firsthand the impact this loss has had on our students and in our communities. School is hard enough as it is. Research shows hungry students have a harder time focusing, attend fewer classes than their peers, and are more likely to experience mental and physical health problems. Amid high inflation, parents have been forced to pay for school meals, stretching already-thin budgets, and causing many families to take on school meal debt. Other times, kids simply don’t eat at all.

Funding healthy school meals for all is a proven way to support our students and increase equity in education. For just $275 per student per year — less than the price of many textbooks — we can boost overall academic performance and improve behavioral health while reducing academic achievement gaps. This investment will yield a return in reduced costs for mental health services, stressors on other human service agencies such as food pantries, and pediatric medical costs.

In addition, providing healthy meals for all kids allows schools to devote more resources to teaching. Universal free school meals provide relief to families struggling to make ends meet and eliminate millions in unpaid school meal debt. Plus, by enabling schools to purchase ingredients in larger quantities, healthy meals for all lowers per-student lunch prices, freeing up funds for schools to provide more programs and better learning tools for our kids.

All of these benefits will be magnified on Long Island. Across Nassau and Suffolk counties, 578 schools — nearly 90% of schools on Long Island — would benefit from state funding for universal free school meals.

Many other states — including California, Maine, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Vermont — have already funded free meals for all students and the policy is overwhelmingly popular. Almost 90% of New Yorkers support free school meals for all; more than 200 education, parent and teacher groups, labor unions, and anti-hunger advocates have joined the campaign; and 71 state legislators have signed a letter calling for New York to fund free school meals for all.

Long Island has borne the brunt of the loss of federal funding for free school meals. Now it’s time for our leaders in Albany to step up for our kids by funding universal free school meals.

This guest essay reflects the views of Rebecca Sanin, chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of LI, and Bob Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.

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