Preserve free meals for hungry students
When Long Island schools shut down in March 2020, hundreds of thousands of children risked losing out on their most reliable and nutritious meals. For the 1 in 5 kids in New York facing hunger, missing the free meals they eat at school could have been catastrophic.
But through a massive collective effort by Long Island school districts and nonprofits, alongside smart investments by the state and federal governments, the worst did not happen.
Children and their parents were able to pick up meals every day outside shuttered schools, day care centers, and other improvised pop-up facilities like the United Methodist Church in Westbury or libraries in Baldwin, Brentwood, and Central Islip. Organizations like Island Harvest Food Bank filled in the gaps, delivering meals to students who could not access a meal distribution at school. A parent only had to send a text message to find the closest meal pickup site.
It was the Long Island we love at its best: generous, compassionate, and civic-spirited.
In those difficult early days, as schools remained closed and unemployment soared, the number of kids facing hunger stayed level — because we were able to move quickly and flexibly to bring food directly to families in need.
That miracle was possible only because Congress waived a set of strict requirements around how and where meals can be served. Without that, no meals could have been prepped "to-go" or picked up by parents or caregivers without special permission. Waivers allowed a mother to drive to a food distribution site, tell the staff she had four children at home, and get several days’ worth of food instead of making multiple trips, limiting potential COVID-19 exposure and saving time and gas money. This was a far-reaching and effective solution for families on Long Island and across the state.
Even with students back in the classroom, the waivers have remained essential. They have allowed schools to continue to serve all students safely, pivot quickly when classrooms have had to quarantine, and continue to feed kids when schools close for the summer, helping keep them safe and nourished all year round.
Now those waivers are about to expire. That is a big problem.
Families are still hurting. Challenges like new variants and supply chain disruptions mean schools and community groups still need flexibility to get kids the food they need.
And coming soon is summer, known in our world as the hungriest time of year. With schools closed, many kids miss out on those two critical meals every day.
For parents facing lost income and rising prices, free summer meals mean the difference between healthy, growing kids and families that cannot put food on the table.
Unless Congress gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to extend the child nutrition waivers, 2022 could be the hungriest summer our kids have faced.
We can still get this right. Our neighborhood schools and community groups know how to get meals to kids but they cannot turn on a dime. To feed hundreds of thousands of kids, they have to secure sites, hire staff, advertise to families, and sign contracts with vendors.
Without these waivers, many children will lack adequate meals all summer. They need those waivers extended, and soon.
We urge our congressional delegation, especially Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, to make sure every child on Long Island and across our great state can obtain good, healthy meals this summer.
We must not let our kids down.
This guest essay reflects the views of Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry New York, and Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest Food Bank.