Universal access to free school lunches and breakfasts has recently come to an end, prompting concern from some residents in the district, and across the country, after expanded federal funding, passed during the height of the pandemic, was not renewed in the latest spending bill. This is a change which could affect approximately 10 million children throughout the United States, according to Forbes.com.
The Universal School Meals Program Act was passed in the beginning of the pandemic to ensure that every child had free meals—during a difficult financial time for many families—regardless of income, to offset the increased food insecurity in homes across the country, as businesses closed and the world came to an unprecedented standstill. The program was cut when Congress reduced pandemic-related spending in the 2022 budget.
In 2021, Data for Progress, a progressive polling firm, discovered that 44 percent of Americans highly favor permanently extending the Universal Free Meals program and many elected officials, school administrators, and residents in the community agree, due to concern that children who need free—or reduced-cost meals—will now be ineligible.
Assemblyman Jarett Gandolfo (7th District) said, “Most school districts were able to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students due to federal pandemic relief funding. This funding has since ended. I am concerned that many K-12 students may not have access to sufficient nutrition while at school. For one, the rising inflation we have seen over the past two years has made food insecurity a growing issue. The income limit for children to qualify for free meals is also quite low; a family of four with a household income of $52,000 would be over the limit and not eligible for free meals. When you consider the cost of living on Long Island, that fact is troubling. There are also social factors at play, which may discourage some families from accepting the help that they need. I’ve even heard from a number of local school board members and administrators that their districts have a significant balance of unpaid lunch bills.”
Many had hoped that this was one pandemic reform which would remain permanently, to make sure that no student goes hungry, due to strict cutoffs or societal shame around admitting financial hardship and food insecurity.
“That’s why I support establishing a universal school meal program for K-12 students in New York State. It’s the best way to ensure that all children have access to adequate nutrition while at school, which will support their health and academic success,” Gandolfo said.
However, some residents are concerned that there is no such thing as a free lunch and wonder where the funds for an extended free meal program would be found.
“The funding for this program would come from both state and federal sources, so our local property tax bills would not be affected,” Gandolfo said.
Legis. Steven J. Flotteron (11th District) concurs that this is a program which is important to continue. He said, “I don’t believe in government spending on a lot of things, but I think this is very important for our most needy. We want to give a fair start in life, things like early intervention, and universal pre-K, and making sure we have these safety nets. I think our priorities are sometimes spending on a lot of things that we shouldn’t be, and this is not one of them. When you’re talking about like 5-year-olds, and 8-year-olds, you’ve got to make sure they get properly educated, and part of that is they should be there getting the nutrition they need to have a successful day of education. We want to give them a slightly even playing field; that’s the goal for everyone, regardless of what culture or religion you’re from.”
Stephen Harrison, assistant superintendent for business at East Islip School District, set the record straight for anyone who may be misinformed or confused about the extent of the federal funding cut and its effects on free meals in the district for students in need.
“They’re [free meals] just being offered for the free, or reduced, population of students, not for those that don’t qualify. Just to clarify, in the previous two school years, due to COVID, all students were getting lunch for free. That’s not specific to East Islip, that is what is meant in terms of federal funding being cut,” Harrison explained.
Students in local districts—and across the country—who qualify for free or reduced-cost meals are still receiving this each school day, as before the pandemic’s across-the-board free-meal policy.
To show your support for universal free school lunches and breakfasts, Gandolfo said, “This is something that would have to happen from the state level, so I would recommend that people contact the governor’s office to voice their support. They are free to contact my office as well, but they would be preaching to the choir here.”