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Bill proposes free school breakfast, lunch

All New York schools could be required to offer free breakfast and lunch to their students.

The legislation (A.9518/S.9144) was introduced recently in the state Senate by Sen. Michele Hinchey, D-Kingston, and in the Assembly by Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, D-East Elmhurst. It’s uncertain if the legislation will make it through both houses of the legislature before the end of the legislative session, tentatively set for June 2.

The legislation by Hinchey and Gonzalez-Rojas would require all schools to opt into the Community Eligibility Programs offered by the federal government; the state would pay the difference between federal aid through the U.S. Agriculture Department and the cost to provide food for all students.

The legislation doesn’t note the potential cost to the state.

Congress gave the USDA the authority to increase school meal reimbursement rates and waive certain requirements in March 2020 when many schools closed due to COVID-19. The increased funding and waivers meant schools could offer grab-and-go meals or send food home with children at the end of the school day rather than having to feed children in the school cafeteria. It also expanded summer food programs for children.

Federal waivers for the expanded program end on June 30.

“The health and economic crises brought on by the COV1D-19 pandemic have made the federal school meal programs more important than ever,” Hinchey and Gonzalez-Rojas wrote in their legislative justification. “A record number of New Yorkers do not have enough to eat, and it is likely that the economic recovery for families who struggle to put food on the table will take years.”

Hinchey and Gonzalez-Rojas said roughly 2,000 schools will no longer have all their students qualify for free meals, with roughly 800,000 students affected. Jamestown offers free breakfast and lunch to all students through the Universal Free Meal programs. The programs allow all students attending Jamestown Public Schools to be automatically eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch. Families do not need to submit a free or reduced meal application to be eligible. Students residing in Jamestown and attending schools outside the Jamestown Public Schools District will need to file an application for free and reduced meals at the school they are attending. This includes Jamestown students attending programs at BOCES.

“While many New York schools — predominantly our larger, urban school districts — offer meals at no cost for all through CEP, 270 schools in our state are eligible for CEP but not participating, often because they are unable to make it work financially,” Hinchey and Gonzalez-Rojas wrote. “Many of these schools are our smallest school districts in rural communities, where poverty is less concentrated but still prevalent.”

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