Well-fed kids are better learners: Hochul should back Healthy School Meals for All

New York is facing an epidemic of child hunger in our schools. In June, federal funding that provided free school meals to all students during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic expired, as a result more than 726,000 students lost access to free school meals. Gov. Hochul must address this public health crisis by funding Healthy School Meals for All in this year’s state budget.

We feel hungry when the amount of sugar in our blood gets too low. When we haven’t eaten enough, our blood sugar drops, depriving our brain cells of the fuel they need. This is why it’s harder to focus when you’re hungry.

When we’re hungry for a long time, our body makes up for the lack of blood sugar by releasing stress hormones like cortisol. These suppress our appetites and provide short-term energy, but they also make us irritable and aggressive — this is why children can and do get “hangry.”

When kids are hungry they start the day at a disadvantage. Hunger makes it difficult for kids to focus and engage in the classroom, which can cause them to fall behind in their schoolwork. For students experiencing chronic hunger, the consistent exposure to stress hormones and constant worrying about where their next meal will come from can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and can even cause developmental delays and/or learning disabilities.

The health impacts of going to school hungry do not magically disappear when students graduate. On the contrary, chronic hunger has ripple effects that can affect the rest of their lives. Research shows a strong connection between childhood hunger and chronic diseases like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as long-term mental health challenges. At the same time, students who fell behind in school because they were hungry are at a disadvantage when looking for jobs and pursuing higher education.

Clearly the loss of federal funding for free school meals for all students is not just an education issue, but also a public health failure that we must correct.

Fortunately, there is a simple, science-backed solution that we can implement before next school year starts: Healthy School Meals for All. By providing state funding to ensure all our kids eat breakfast and lunch at school at no cost to their families, we can ensure every student has the fuel they need to thrive in the classroom and beyond.

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For such a simple policy, the impact is stunning. Providing free school meals for all students dramatically reduces childhood hunger and can even alleviate food insecurity among students’ families by freeing up an average of $140 per week on grocery costs that enable them to feed the rest of the household.

Since they are required to meet specific nutritional thresholds, school meals are healthier than the meals that students buy themselves or bring from home — across all income categories. This means providing free meals at school ensures students are getting not just enough to eat, but also the right nutrition to support healthy growth and learning for all students.

Healthy School Meals for All also supports learning and educational equity. After New York City implemented free school meals for all students in 2017, student skills improved the same amount as if they had received six to ten additional weeks of instruction.

Making school meals free for all students is not only vital to achieving positive academic outcomes, but also safeguards student’s mental health. Kids can be cruel, and many students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals decline to participate due to the social stigma that comes with a means-tested program. A recent report found that when school meals are free for all, perceptions of bullying and fighting decrease, and kids from income-eligible households feel safer.

Given the benefits, it’s no surprise that nearly 90% of New Yorkers agree the state should make meals free for all students. This is why this policy is a top priority for the New York State American Academy of Pediatrics and why we’ve joined this coalition of more than 250 education, anti-hunger, and health organizations and 71 state legislators who signed a letter calling for Healthy School Meals for All.

We cannot wait to address the health crisis caused by childhood hunger. The governor needs to include funding for Healthy School Meals for All in her Executive Budget, and our leaders in Albany must step up to support this much-needed policy.

Seigel is the chair of the New York State American Academy of Pediatrics; chairman, Department of Pediatrics and director of Adolescent Medicine at Coney Island Hospital; and associate professor of Clinical Pediatrics at SUNY Downstate.

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