School Advocates Call for NYS to Provide Free Meals for All Students

By Reuvain Borchardt

NEW YORK — New York state lawmakers and advocacy groups are renewing calls for the state to provide free school meals for all students, after a COVID-era federal program ended last June.

The federal government has long provided free or reduced-cost meals based on a student’s family income; free meals are available for New York students living in households with income below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or just over $51,000 for a family of four. (If at least 62.5% of students in a particular school system are verified low-income — as is the case in some private schools as well as New York City public schools— students in that entire system get free meals, under the federal “Community Eligibility Provision.”)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with businesses suffering and unemployment high, the federal government began providing free meals for all students, regardless of income — initially, when schools were closed, in the form of “grab and go” packages, and later, for regular school meals. But that program ended last June, leaving 726,000 students without access to free meals.

A bill proposed in the last legislative session by Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and state Sen. Michelle Hinchey would give all students free lunches, with the state making up the funding gap, estimated at around $200 million annually. The bill did not pass last year — possibly because lawmakers were holding out to see if the federal government would extend its program.

Gonzalez-Rojas and Hinchey, who plan to reintroduce the bill this session, sent letters to Gov. Kathy Hochul last month signed by more than 40 assemblymembers and nearly 30 senators, respectively, asking the governor to include this provision in the executive budget she releases later this month.

David Rubel, a public policy consultant working with the Sephardic Community Federation, told Hamodia that more than 60,000 yeshiva students in the state stand to benefit from this program.

“Several hundred thousand New York State families, including many yeshiva families, are barely getting by but still make too much money to qualify for the meals,” said Rubel. ”Passing this bill would mean no more lunch-shaming, no more children suffering in silence, nutritious daily meals for all school children and some financial relief for families that need it most.”

Some 300 entities representing public school districts, Catholic schools, yeshivas, and anti-hunger organizations have joined in a coalition called Healthy School Meals for All NY Kids, which held a lobbying day Monday in Albany, where they met with dozens of lawmakers or their staff.

Also Monday, some 80 yeshivas sent a letter to Hochul, asking her to support the bill.

“It is crucial for every schoolchild to have a nutritious lunch, in order to learn properly,” Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, Agudath Israel’s director of New York government relations, told Hamodia following the lobbying session. “Sadly, even in our community, there are people who suffer from food instability. No child in in this day and age should go hungry or lack nutritious daily meals.”

“This is a major priority for every parent and yeshiva this legislative session,” said Maury Litwack, Managing Director of the OU & Founder of Teach Coalition. “If you are reading this: we need your help to fund free meals for all students. Speak to your elected official today and tell them how important this is to you.”

Asked for comment on the bill, Hochul spokesman Jason Gough would not reply directly about the bill, stating only that “Governor Hochul worked with the legislature on a budget that provides an unprecedented $31.5 billion in statewide funding for the current school year and a supplemental earned income tax credit to help families with rising costs, and she will release details of the FY 2024 Budget this year.”

Advocates for the bill tell Hamodia the governor’s budget office is assessing the potential costs, which the advocates view as a sign that the governor is considering supporting the bill.

Below is a letter sent to Hochul Monday by some 80 yeshivas

Below is a letter sent to Hochul last month, signed by more than 40 assemblymembers. (A similar letter was sent with the signatures of nearly 30 senators.)

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