EDITORIAL: Find the money for free school meals

Pre-K students at Schenectady's Lincoln Elementary School eat their free breakfast meals in their classroom in this file photo.
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Pre-K students at Schenectady's Lincoln Elementary School eat their free breakfast meals in their classroom in this file photo.
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New York takes great pride in providing its students with the tools they need to succeed in school.

And taxpayers support that effort with the highest per-pupil spending in the country.

One of the factors that contributes to a student’s ability to learn is whether they have food in their stomachs. Study after study has shown that making sure students are well nourished leads to higher test scores and improved behavioral health, and helps reduce academic gaps and health disparities based on race.

During the pandemic, the federal government provided financial aid to fund free meals for all students in the state, regardless of income level. But that funding was cut off at the end of the last school year, leaving 726,000 students in nearly 2,000 schools without access to those meals.

Now state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, are pushing for the state to provide those meals to students in New York, joining states like California, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Nevada, along with a number of major cities.

To make up for the loss in federal funding, it will cost taxpayers about $200 million per year.

That sounds like a lot, except when compared to the nearly $30,000 the state spends to educate each student in grades K-12 and when compared to the total state budget of about $220 billion.

For the educational benefit the free meal program provides, ensuring that all kids are adequately fed is a worthwhile expense.

But despite what the politicians seem to believe, New York taxpayers are not made of money. And even a comparatively small increase in per-pupil spending adds up.

If they value the free meals, lawmakers must find other areas in the budget to offset the cost.

If they take the money out of, for instance, Foundation Aid, lawmakers would be compounding the education problem for students in poor districts. But certainly some wealthier school districts could give up a small portion of their aid to support meals for hungry students.

Lawmakers could probably save a few million by using an economic means test to determine eligibility for free breakfasts and lunches. But that approach has proven discriminatory and stigmatizing, as well as a headache for districts to administer. So let’s not go there again.

They could use economies of scale to reduce the overall price tag of the free meals program through bulk purchases and other state-friendly contracts. That would help.

The $200 million for the school meals represents about 0.01% of the entire state budget.

If cutting overall school spending isn’t on the table, then lawmakers need to find $200 million in wasteful or unnecessary spending in the rest of the budget to make up the difference. It shouldn’t be difficult. They could cut back on some of the state’s economic development initiatives that have proven wasteful and ineffective. $10 million here, a couple million there. Heck, the pay raise lawmakers just gave themselves was $6.5 million they could have used.

The main point here is ensuring students have all the tools they need to succeed, including making sure they’re properly nourished.

If it’s truly a priority, lawmakers will find a way to pay for it other than raising our taxes even higher than they already are.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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