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NYFB Supports Healthy School Meals for All

Closing New York's School Meal Gap: A Win-Win for Farmers and Families

By Renée St. Jacques, Senior Associate Director of Public Policy and Promotion & Education, New York Farm Bureau
Printed in Buffalo News on  Dec. 27, 2023

Childhood hunger is a statewide crisis in New York: one in six children experience food insecurity. Despite national momentum to establish free school meals for all policies, New York falls behind other states. With more than 345,000 students without access to free school meals, New York must step up to close the gap.

Healthy School Meals for All – where all students can eat school meals at no cost – is a proven strategy to alleviate child hunger. And it’s a win for New York farmers. A fully-funded universal school meals program would broaden the scope of existing Farm to School investments, bringing more nutritious, locally-produced food to cafeterias across the state.

Over 40% of New York school districts have already embraced New York’s Farm to School Incentive Program, which provides schools an additional reimbursement if they spend at least 30% of their food budget on local products. Yet, a lack of funding is a key barrier for many schools to expand participation. Passage of Healthy School Meals for All would generate stable revenue and increase buying power for local food purchasing. 63% of participating schools in Farm to School have universal school meal programs.

Among schools without universal meals, nutrition staff have limited capacity to ensure high-quality meals are consistently served at high quantities, with less time for program innovation and quality improvement. Through Healthy School Meals for All, streamlined administration allows school nutrition departments to prioritize building relationships with producers, developing recipes, and training staff.

Since 2012, New York has lost about 2,100 farms – the largest decline in over two decades.

For New York’s nearly 32,000 family farms, school meal programs are a well-established market with exciting potential. Nationally, school districts spend a collective $1.26 billion on local foods annually. New York can invest in fostering farm-to-school relationships with farmers who are grappling with rising operational costs, labor shortages, and unpredictable weather patterns exacerbated by climate change.

Nationwide, lawmakers have embraced the alignment between these policies: all eight states with permanent universal school meals state policies have also passed Farm to School incentives, and 79% of states with local food purchasing policies have also introduced universal meals legislation, including New York.

The synergy between Healthy School Meals for All and Farm to School programs is clear: school meals for all expands access to local food for children, while providing school nutrition departments stable revenue and streamlining connections with local producers.

We at New York Farm Bureau urge Governor Hochul to include a fully-funded Healthy School Meals for All in the upcoming state budget. By ensuring that every student in New York has access to healthy, locally-sourced meals, we can deliver a win for both New York families and farmers.