GovernmentThe Northern Westchester Examiner

Slater Urges Funding for Statewide Universal Meals Program in Schools

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Assemblyman Matt Slater surrounded by representatives of area food pantries and several other officials makes his pitch last Wednesday for a statewide universal meals program in public schools.

A local assemblyman is ramping up support for a universal free school meals program that would provide breakfast and lunch to every public school student in the state.

Assemblyman Matt Slater (R-Yorktown) last week called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to include funding for the program in her Fiscal Year 2025 budget that she will unveil next month shortly after the start of the new legislative session.

With many families still struggling financially post-pandemic, the time has come for New York to join other states that have enacted or have proposed a similar program, he said.

“Most people don’t realize that for kids their most nutritious meal will be at school, and it’s just critically important for their success, and I think we all understand as parents what it means to have your kids kind of function on an empty stomach,” Slater said while joined by representatives of various food pantries at St. Mary’s Food Pantry in Mohegan Lake. “But if we can help the schools and have them provide that nutritious meal, breakfast and lunch, at least we know we’re setting them up for success from the beginning of the day.”

There is the federal free and reduced lunch program, but the income eligibility is $39,000 and $55,500 in household income for a family of four for the current school year. New York State also has a free meals program but many districts, particularly in the Hudson Valley, including the 94th Assembly District that Slater represents, aren’t eligible to participate because of the relative wealth of the districts.

However, there are families who struggle to make ends meet. Slater said that when meeting with school officials in his Assembly district, making sure that all students are properly nourished is one of the top priorities.

The best way to ensure that is with universal free meals, said Lakeland Board of Education Vice President Michael Daly.

“Unless then can think and function because they’re well-fed, we don’t get full benefit,” Daly said. “So, you are helping our children succeed.”

The surge in families needing assistance since shortly after the start of the pandemic hasn’t abated, said St. Mary’s Food Pantry Director Cindy Smith. Pre-COVID, the pantry was helping about 85 families a week, but that has ballooned to about 200. For Thanksgiving, that skyrocketed to more than 300, she said.

As many as half the families who are currently eligible for school meals assistance don’t take advantage of the program because of the stigma, said Sara Gunn of Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. A universal meals program would address that dilemma.

“We want to take away the stigma of having to ask for a lunch program for a child,” Smith said. “Children don’t want to be singled out; they want to be like their friends, like their neighbors, so providing a lunch and a breakfast to every child is a really important issue.”

There is also wide support for a school universal meals program in the legislature as well as among residents in the state, Slater said. Polls found that about 77 percent of New Yorkers support the program, which cuts across a wide range of political philosophies.

Money for the program would be allocated as part of every district’s state aid. Slater said that estimates pegged the cost at about $180 million for a school year. Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota and New Mexico have already established universal meals in the schools with many more states likely to follow, he said. For the state it’s a matter of priorities.

“New York needs to be a leader here, and the governor has an opportunity in her executive budget to prove it,” said Slater, who along with other Assembly members recently sent a letter to the governor appealing for her support.

Yorktown Supervisor Tom Diana, whose town created the Food Insecurity Task Force during the pandemic, said helping children is best for their future and that of the community.

“If they go to school hungry, they’re not going to learn properly, and this is what we don’t want to happen,” Diana said. “We want to make sure that our kids are safe, they’re fed and they learn. We can build multimillion dollar stadiums but we can’t feed our children? Really?”


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