Educators, Officials Prod Hochul on Free School Meals for All Students

Leaders of hunger-relief efforts, medical experts, educators and elected officials Friday called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to fund free meals for all students in her next state budget.

Gathered at Jefferson Primary School in Huntington, the assemblage of leaders said that $280 million should be allocated for school meals in the budget, which is due April 1. Separate bills in the Assembly and in the Senate include the funds.

Providing free meals  to all represents “an investment in students, (one) that will bring a return on investment” in the future as students thrive and contribute back to the community, said Bob Vecchio, head of Nassau Suffolk school board.

Free school meals would improve students’ health and academic performance, take pressure off of family budgets, and reduce the strain on food banks and pantries, speakers said.

Some of those who spoke cited their own experiences as pupils who sometimes went hungry in school as they attempted to avoid being identified as impoverished, or, how, as educators, they witnessed children who went without food, or knew that schools were sometimes providing a child’s only meal of the day.

A federal program that subsidized meals for all students that began during the Covid-19 epidemic ended in June, leading to the loss of free meals for hundreds of thousands of students around the state. Some lost out on the program as their families’ income rose just enough to disqualify them but not enough to keep them adequately fed, food-experts say.

Huntington superintendent James W. Polansky, who is also president of the Suffolk School Superintendents Association, said many families were hit hard financially during the Covid-19 epidemic and had not recovered.

“The federal money dried up last June and the flow of dollars has not been renewed by Congress,” Polansky said. “Many people in our community, in the region and across the state are struggling to put food on the table and it may take yearrs for them to recover financially.”

“Food insecurity has unfortunately become commonplace,” Polansky said. “While some districts are able to continue providing free meals to the current eligiblity program there are many districts” that cannot.”

“When every child in New York can access meals at school, we will be activly reducing hunger,” said Rebecca Sanin, CEO and president of the Health & Welfare Council in Melville. “We will be actively reducing underachievement. We will be actively reducing poor health outcomes.We will be acctively reducing behavioral challenges. We will be actively reducing the possibility that any child’s light will not shine. Ina world in which there is so much conflict, funding school meals enjoys bipartisan support.”

Among others participating in the press conference were Huntington school board trustees Xavier Palacios, Michele Kustera and Bill Dwyer; State Sens. Monica Martinez,  Dean Murray and Kevin Thomas; Long Island Cares CEO Paule Pachter, Island Harvest CEO Randi Shubin Dresner, Dr. Patrick Harrigan, Half Hollow Hills superintendent, Dr. Ryan Manning, Harborfields school superintendent, Dr. Eve Krief, a pediatrician and a Harborfields school board trustee

Krief said, “The NYS American Academy of Pediatrics urges the Governor to support universal healthy meals in school. Children who are hungry cannot focus which impacts their learning, behavior and mental health . Not knowing where their next meal is coming from causes toxic stress on their developing bodies which combined with lack of proper nutrition leads to  physical and cognitive delays.
“We must understand that there are hungry children in every school district across this state. Yet a family of 4 making just over $51K does not qualify for federal meal aid . Those that do qualify often don’t apply for it because of social stigma or administrative or language barriers.  68K children are food insecure on Long Island . Healthy meals in school would provide children with half of their daily caloric needs and support struggling families. We cannot allow children to go hungry. This important initiative would support children’s health, and well being and deliver to them  the nutrition they need to succeed.”







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