By Kat Harkins, Community Health Improvement Coordinator
Statewide and across the US, educators, healthcare providers, anti-hunger agencies and more are promoting universal free meal policies for schools, a measure that would ensure equity and improve classroom performance for all students. As these coalitions lobby lawmakers in Albany, The Heart Network — which administers the Creating Healthy Schools & Communities (CHSC) program in Franklin County — wants to draw attention to why free school meals for all matters.
Simply put, a well-fed student is more likely to have good attendance and better grades and is less likely to develop physical and mental health problems. For many students living at or below the poverty line, school meals are the only reliable source of nutrition they receive on a day-to-day basis. According to data compiled by Hunger Solutions NY, school meals can account for over half of a child’s daily caloric intake. And with schools across the state emphasizing healthier food choices in cafeterias, many kids are eating their healthiest meals of the day during school hours.
While a universal healthy school meals for all program would certainly make big strides in supporting the health and wellness of kids, it also advances equity. Many families struggle to make ends meet but don’t qualify for free school meals, while other families are in rural school districts that can’t afford to implement free meal programs. And even in cases in which a child qualifies, they often don’t partake due to stigma — especially as they grow older.
Currently, New York State is considering implementation of universal school meals as part of its 2024 budget. Hunger Solutions NY has proposed that such a measure should provide breakfast and lunch at no cost for all students, ensure that such meals are nutritious and maximize federal reimbursements. If adopted, there’s potential for over 726,000 students statewide to have access to free school meals.
The Heart Network’s CHSC program views school nutrition as a fundamental building block in developing stronger community health — we believe that providing free universal school meals would have a ripple effect not just for our schools, but for our communities, too. To learn more about the statewide effort to introduce universal school meals, visit hungersolutionsny.org. To learn more about our Creating Healthy Schools & Communities program, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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