Press Release

In The Bronx: Gillibrand, Bowman, Joined By Biaggi And Local Leaders, Announce Federal Legislation To Create Permanent, Nationwide Universal School Meals Program

May 17, 2021

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Representative Jamaal Bowman stood in front of P.S. 24 in the Bronx to discuss their recently-introduced bicameral legislation, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021. The federal lawmakers were joined by New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, Christina Hanson, Executive Director of Part of the Solution (POTS), and P.S. 24 principal Steven Schwartz.

While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will continue to provide free school meals through COVID-19 waivers through the 2021-2022 school year, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 would deliver permanent relief to millions of food-insecure families by eliminating school meal debt, encouraging the use of local foods in school meal programs, and providing free breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack options to all school children regardless of their socioeconomic background. 

“In New York City, we have seen that providing universal school meals makes an incredible difference to students and their families. And the USDA has recognized that. Last month, they announced that they would continue to temporarily provide universal school meals and extend the P-EBT program, giving millions of families a lifeline and peace of mind for the next school year. But we have to go further,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We need to create a permanent and nationwide universal school meals program, and I am proud to be joining Representative Bowman in support of the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021. This bill will help New York City schools expand and strengthen existing school meals programs and ensure that no parent has to worry about where their child’s next meal is coming from.”

“Even when this pandemic is over, millions of kids are still going to lack access to the healthy food they need to thrive,” said Rep. Bowman. “That is why we must make the USDA’s emergency school meals waiver permanent and expand it — so that all kids in New York state and across the country can get the nutrition that will allow them to stay healthy, focus in school, and just to be kids without hunger following them everywhere they go. I’m proud to be an original co-sponsor of the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 and grateful for Senator Gillibrand’s leadership on behalf of all of our kids.”

“Access to school meals is imperative to our students’ success, especially as many working families continue to face economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No child should fear going hungry at school, and the Universal School Meals Program will ensure our schools are well equipped to provide meals to all students. I applaud Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Bowman for their commitment to combating the hunger crisis and for championing the Universal School Meals Program.” – New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi 

“I am humbled by the resiliency our children and families have shown this past year and a half. However, if we expect children to once again rise to the occasion and engage in higher learning, then it’s our job to make sure they receive the nutrition they need that impact their social, emotional, and academic welfare,” said P.S. 24 principal Steven Schwartz. “The Universal Schools Meals Act will ensure that all children have the same opportunity to flourish instead of worrying where and how they are getting their next meal.”

“The pandemic clearly showed us how fragile food security is for many families,” said Rhonda Braxton, Vice President for Health and Wellness at Children’s Aid. “That’s because students’ health and wellness depend upon the nutritious meals that schools and after-school programs provide. In the communities we serve, Universal School Meals means a child will not go hungry – and a hungry child cannot learn. This legislation helps ensure that every child has an opportunity to succeed and thrive.”

“Today, while some school districts — like those in New York City — provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students, many face a separate and unequal system of meal payment dependent on family income thresholds, creating stigma and adding administrative burdens to households and school staff. However, making meals freely available to all students increases participation in school meals and pays major dividends in increased attendance, better grades, and reduced financial stress. That’s a win not only for administrators, but for kids, their families, and our nation as a whole. Students, families and educators have faced unprecedented challenges during the pandemic. As our nation reopens, we must ensure that students can go back to school safe in the knowledge that they will always be able to have the food then need to learn and grow. Food Bank for New York City urges lawmakers to expand free school meals to all families across our nation by making Universal School Meals a legislative priority in this Congressional session.” – President and CEO at Food Bank for New York City Leslie Gordon

Gillibrand has been a leader in the fight to combat the growing hunger crisis since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, Gillibrand visited food banks across New York City and successfully pushed congressional leadership to provide a 15% increase in SNAP benefits.  As part of the December COVID-relief package, Gillibrand successfully helped to expand eligibility for P-EBT, make the program more responsive to changes in virtual and in person learning, and included more low-income children who had been previously been left out of the program. Gillibrand also secured the inclusion of an emergency increase in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Cash Value Vouchers up to $35 per month for women and children in the American Rescue Plan. She also recently introduced the Summer Meals Act alongside Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) to improve the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which provides low-income children — who would normally receive free or reduced lunch during the school year — with nutritious meals during the summer, after school, and when school is closed for vacations or emergencies.   

The bill is also endorsed by over 360 organizations, including NY Hunger Solutions, Community Food Advocates NYC, Urban School Food Alliance, Foodlink, School Nutrition Association, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Hunger Free America, UnidosUS, Children’s Defense Fund, and the National Action Network.

Gillibrand is pushing for the inclusion of the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021 in the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization currently being negotiated by the Senate Agriculture Committee. 

Full text of the legislation can be found here.