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New York should provide free school meals

AnotherVoice / Food insecurity

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This year I can't celebrate Thanksgiving with the same enthusiasm as usual because, while we enjoy our dinners, thousands of New York students are going to school hungry.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the federal government provided free school meals for all public school students. This policy expired in June, causing more than 726,000 students at nearly 2,000 schools to lose access to free school meals.

In the Buffalo region, an estimated 70,000 students in more than 250 schools lost access to free school meals this fall. At a time when many New Yorkers are facing food insecurity and inflation is driving grocery prices to historic highs, this loss is hitting families hard.

Students experiencing hunger struggle to focus, have lower attendance than their peers, and are at greater risk of mental and physical health problems. These challenges affect all students and they disproportionately impact Black and Latino children.

Fortunately, we have the power to address this crisis. I'm urging Gov. Kathy Hochul to provide full funding for universal free school meals in next year's state budget.

Providing free school meals for all students across the state levels the playing field, ensuring students are well-nourished, no matter where they live. Across income levels, school meals are the healthiest many children eat, and ensuring that all students are wellfed is proven to boost test scores and improve behavioral health while reducing health disparities and academic achievement gaps.

In addition to the benefits for students, providing healthy meals for all kids is good for schools and New York's economy. By enabling schools to purchase larger quantities, healthy meals for all lowers per-student lunch prices and eliminates millions in unpaid school meal debt each year. Overall, for every dollar invested in providing healthy meals for students, we get at least two dollars in health, economic, equity, and environmental benefits.

Other states have already taken action. California,Maine, Colorado,Mas sachusetts, Vermont and Nevada have all stepped up to provide state funding to ensure healthy meals for all their students. Here in New York, the policy is overwhelmingly popular; almost 90% of New Yorkers support free school meals for all, and more than 200 education, parent and teacher groups, labor unions and anti-hunger advocates have joined the campaign calling on the governor to fund universal free school meals.

This Thanksgiving, I hope Hochul gives us something we can all be thankful for: a commitment to fund universal free school meals for all New York students.

Liz Accles is the executive director of Community Food Advocates.

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