Advocates and lawmakers gathered at the New York State Capitol on Monday to rally for free school meals for every student in the state.

Last year, expansions in eligibility at the federal level and state budget subsidies expanded the number of students who could take part, but the goal is to make free meals universal.

Emily Ledyard, advocacy coordinator for Feeding New York State, said she relied on the program throughout her time in school.

“My hope is for students to not have to worry about where their next meal comes from, they can focus on their studies and not worry about what friend is going to share lunch with them,” Ledyard said. “This is about providing students with the peace of mind that they don’t have to choose between school debt or going hungry.” 

Advocates said that while last year the program was expanded to provide meals to more than 347,000 students, gaps in coverage mean an additional more than 300,000 students aren’t eligible.

“We believe that means-testing children for free school meals is wrong,” said Andrés Vives, executive director at Hunger Solutions New York. “We provide textbooks [and] we provide free bussing to schools.”

Now, federal guidelines say at least 25% of students need to be eligible for free or reduced meals for a school itself to participate. That leaves more than 650 schools in New York state still using an individual income threshold to determine eligibility despite having students who qualify for the newer program.

“We know it is low-income children who are most impacted, but they exist across every neighborhood across New York state,” said Queens Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas. 

It’s a solution that has received wide bipartisan support.

“If we want to prove to our kids that we can solve a real problem, this is it,” said Assemblymember Matt Slater. “If we want to prove to New Yorkers that we can come together as Republicans and Democrats to do the right thing, feeding our kids needs to be at the top of that list.”

There is another key reason lawmakers and advocates say this program needs to be for everyone.

For many students like Ledyard, getting access to meals wasn’t the only problem. She also had to deal with the social implications of being part of a program that not every student needed to use. The hope is that if free meals are funded for all students, no one will have to be singled out the way Ledyard says she was. 

“Being a kid having to survive with healthy school meals is really difficult, I was bullied every single day,” Ledyard said. “I skipped breakfast for my own protection. I ate lunch in the counseling office or the art room trying to hide. I did everything I could.”

Eight other states offer free school breakfast and lunch to all students.