Sillitti: Why all Long Island kids deserve healthy school meals

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By Dan Sears

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Hunger exists in every community. Many children in New York State, including our own Long Island communities, struggle to access the nutrition they need. Children who experience hunger have difficulty learning, have lower school attendance than their peers, and are at greater risk of adverse mental and physical health outcomes.

School meals can help safeguard children from hunger and the associated effects, but only if we ensure all students have access.

Last year’s state budget included a historic expansion of free school meals. As a result, an estimated 1,100 additional New York schools, including around 180 on Long Island, are able to provide meals at no cost to all students starting this school year.

Still, an estimated 350,000 students across 750 schools in New York remain ineligible for this vital support. Nearly half of those left behind—more than 165,000 students—are on Long Island. This is an unacceptable number. In Assembly District 16, nearly all of our schools were left behind.

Some perceive our communities as affluent. The reality is that many of our neighbors are struggling. Costs of living have skyrocketed, and wages aren’t keeping up. Meanwhile, many on Long Island are not considered “poor enough” to qualify for help. A family of four earning just $56,000—far from a living wage for a family on Long Island—is ineligible for free school meals through the traditional application process. Even families who do qualify are often deterred by social stigma and fear. This is especially true in school districts perceived as “wealthy.”

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In regions such as ours, economic inequalities within communities make it challenging for schools to meet the strict eligibility threshold to provide free school meals for all, even though the need is still there.

In the Great Neck Union Free School District, for example, one in four students are economically disadvantaged, yet the district does not qualify to offer free meals for all their students. In other areas on Long Island, some schools (but not all) within the same district, are eligible to provide meals at no cost. You can have an elementary school qualify, but not the middle school next door. This creates confusion and an inequitable dynamic for school districts, where children in the same neighborhood, or even the same household, may not have the same access to free school meals. It’s just not right.

Recent data underscore the urgency of this policy, as child poverty and hunger have increased dramatically nationwide. U.S. Census Bureau reports show child poverty rates doubled from 2021 to 2022—the largest year-over-year increase on record. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported an increase in hunger nationwide, with 1 in 5 households with children struggling with food insecurity. In Assembly District 16 alone, Island Harvest Food Bank—and its network of member agencies—distributed more than 300,000 pounds of food throughout 2023. To give you a sense of how much food that is, 300,000 pounds equates to approximately 240,000 meals.

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In this year’s state budget, we can and must do more to ensure that no student in our state attends school hungry. New York’s expansion of school meals was a significant step in the right direction, but we must finish the job. I call on Gov. Hochul and my colleagues in the legislature to prioritize healthy school meals for all New York kids.

 

Gina Sillitti is the assemblywoman for District 16, representing parts of the Town of North Hempstead in Albany.

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