Push for free school meals for all kids gains traction
As Kyle Belokopitsky sees it, no child should go hungry and no child should be stigmatized or subject to bullying because he or she qualifies for a benefit due to family income status.
Push for free school meals for all kids gains traction
ALBANY — As Kyle Belokopitsky sees it, no child should go hungry and no child should be stigmatized or subject to bullying because he or she qualifies for a benefit due to family income status.
Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State Parent Teacher Association, is among the advocates urging state lawmakers to fund a program designed to provide free breakfast and lunch to more than 700,000 New York school children each day.
“Food insecurity continues to increase at each of our school districts across the state every day,” Belokopitsky told CNHI.
A bipartisan initiative called the Healthy School Meals for All program has won support from more than 250 organizations, including the politically influential New York State United Teachers, the statewide teachers union.
The federal government had been providing funding for school meals during the pandemic, but that money dried up last June, and Congress has not renewed that flow of dollars.
Some school districts, such as ones in Niagara Falls and Plattsburgh, have been able to continue to provide free meals through the Community Eligibility Program, because the federal government has determined they have relatively high numbers of children from families living in poverty.
Many of the districts that have lost funding are in rural and suburban areas of New York, according to advocates. But the need in those communities is not insignificant, they say.
Healthy School Meals for All would get $200 million in state funding under a measure framed by Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Greene County.
“The health and economic crises brought on by the COV1D-19 pandemic have made the federal school meal programs more important than ever,” Hinchey said in the legislation now gaining steam at the statehouse. “A record number of New Yorkers do not have enough to eat, and it is likely that the economic recovery for families who struggle to put food on the table will take years.”
Children who go to school hungry can develop mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and have difficulty focusing on their academic work, supporters of the measure say.
“The universal meal program was absolutely vital during COVID,” said David Little, director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State. “It was one of the smartest things the federal government ever did in trying to hold people together during the pandemic.”
But that momentum is now in jeopardy due to the uncertainty over whether the free meals can again be made available, he said.
“This is a program that really hits the nail on the head in terms of making sure kids are well fed during the day and are able to focus,” Little said. Providing meals to children at school is one of the most innovative ways to improve the education system and regain some of the social development and learning ground lost due to remote learning shifts conducted during the pandemic, he said.
Some children went through a period of “virtual solitary confinement” during the pandemic, having been isolated from their classmates due to restrictions on in-person learning, and having shared meals now is beneficial to their development, he said.
He and other advocates also stressed the importance of making free meals “universal,” so children don’t have to qualify based on their family’s income level.
“Unfortunately, bullying and cyberbullying are real in our school districts,” Belokopitsky said. “Students who accept a free lunch or even families that accept a free lunch shouldn’t have to feel stigmatized.”
If there is any organized opposition to Healthy School Meals for All, it has yet to make itself known.
Niagara Falls Schools Supt. Mark Laurrie said while his district does qualify now for the Community Eligibility Program providing lunches to students at district schools, he supports the effort to provide the funding to other districts that are not included.
“This is a critical piece of legislation that has to get passed,” Laurrie said. “We got used to this during the pandemic, and it has real benefits to it.”
Jay Lebrun, superintendent of Plattsburgh City School District, holds a similar view.
The availability of free meals to children has helped alleviate at least a level of food insecurity and hunger, Lebrun said. “It has further reduced possible shaming based on socio-economics surrounding participation in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, and has even provided an element of value-added for those families not in-need who now might spend less on food for their children’s meals.”
Lebrun added: “It’s hard to find any negatives about free meals from a student health and well-being perspective.”
A lawmaker from a farming region, Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, said he believes offering a universal meal program in schools is an idea that not only has merit but could also be enhanced if the menu included breakfasts and lunches made from New York farm products.
“It’s very important children get balanced meals, and we know that for a lot of children the best time of day for them is when they are in school,” Tague observed.
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