Gov. Kathy Hochul didn't propose funding free school meals for all students in her executive budget released this week, dismaying lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
One in seven children in New York experience hunger, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Federal pandemic aid tackled food insecurity for families, leaving many people hungry when programs expired.
That prompted lawmakers to introduce new legislation last month to create the Healthy School Meals For All program, or free breakfast and lunches for all public school students.
"You can't teach a hungry child," sponsor Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas said Friday. "If someone's not well-fed, they're not well-read, so it's really important to make sure that they're getting the nutrition necessary to be successful in school."
Universal school meals for kindergarten through 12th grade would cost the state between $187 million and $201 million annually, González-Rojas said — less than a tenth of a percent of the state's total $227 billion budget.
Many lawmakers were surprised and disappointed Hochul left it out of her budget proposal.
"Funding free, healthy school meals for our students should be a no-brainer, and I was disappointed to see that our proposal didn't make it into the budget," Senate sponsor Michelle Hinchey said.
Hochul significantly increased school aid in her budget proposal for the second year in a row.
"In her Executive Budget, Gov. Hochul allocated $34.5 billion in total school aid — the highest level of state aid in history, and fully funded Foundation Aid for the first time," a spokesperson with the governor's office said in a statement Friday.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state received federal waivers and millions of dollars to fund free breakfast and lunch for all students regardless of household income. The benefit lasted through two academic years, but expired last June.
Hochul maintains it should be up to the federal government to foot the bill to extend the program.
"In addition, we are working closely with our federal counterparts and encourage them to reinstate the federal universal meal program that ended last school year," a spokesperson with Hochul's office said.
Lawmakers say they'll be fighting hard to make sure the program is funded in the final 2024 FY budget that deadlines April 1.
The measure continues to gain in popularity, with several Assembly Republicans signing on to the measure this week.
Senate Republicans aren't against the program, but want to be cautious about the cost to school districts.
"I would suggest we're going to have to see an actual dollar figure with what that increase would be," Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said Friday at an unrelated event in Western New York. "[Gov. Hochul] did increase school funding significantly, so maybe there's a portion of that that can be redirected to this."
González-Rojas says a universal school meals program in New York would relieve school districts of about $25 million of debt.
The Association of School Business Officials argue now is the time for the program, as the state has a multi-billion-dollar surplus, with much of it earmarked to pad the reserve fund.
"The state's finances are in pretty good order ... so there's definitely some opportunities there to find space for some of these important initiatives," ASBO Executive Director Brian Cechnicki said. "And we're hopeful that we'll find state funding for the universal meals program."
About 726,000 students in New York lost access to free school meals after the federal pandemic program ended. Hinchey, a Saugerties Democrat, said reinstating the program would provide meals to 17,000 students in her district.
"Oftentimes, the meals children eat at school are the only meals they eat in a day, and right now, while children in our bigger cities have acess to universal school meals, our students outside of the city do not," Hinchey said.
Lawmakers and organizations agree they'll be pushing for the Senate and Assembly to include free school meals in their countering budget proposals next month.
"We'll have to wait and see what sort of the revenue agreements are between the houses next month," Cechnicki said. "That's going to really set the stage. But we're very hopeful that we'll be able to get this done."