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Students in the Lockport and Niagara Falls school districts have it pretty good right now when it comes to school meals.

For such districts in communities with high poverty levels, schools may offer free meals to all students with no paperwork under the Community Eligibility Provision.

According to Hunger Solutions New York, “CEP is available to any school, group of schools or district that has 40% or more students directly certified for free school meals, by means other than a school meal application.”

Direct certification applies to students whose household participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, and in certain instances, Medicaid. Children can also meet direct certification requirements if they are known to be a runaway, certified as a migrant, are in foster care, are enrolled in Head Start or are experiencing homelessness.

Mark Laurrie, superintendent of the Niagara Falls school district, said while it does qualify now for the Community Eligibility Program providing lunches to students at Niagara Falls schools, he supports the effort to provide funding to other districts that are not included.

“This is a critical piece of legislation that has to get passed,” Laurrie said. “We got used to this during the pandemic, and it has real benefits to it.”

Laurrie is talking about the bipartisan initiative Healthy School Meals for All program which has won support from more than 250 organizations, including the politically influential New York State United Teachers, the statewide teachers union, and we are happy it has.

In New York, the Department of Education administers the school breakfast and lunch programs and local schools operate them. In many districts some students pay full price while others qualify for free or reduced lunches — which creates its own set of problems.

Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State Parent Teacher Association, argues, “Students who accept free lunch or even families that accept a free lunch shouldn’t have to feel stigmatized” and points out, “bullying and cyberbullying are real in our districts.”

We agree with Belokopitsky’s sentiments.

There is no reason a child should need to feel like they are less than others due to the inability of their family to afford paid school meals.

We believe the problem should be eliminated entirely and that no child’s family should have to pay for school breakfast or lunch regardless of district CEP qualifications or poverty level.

Of course, there is a cost to offering free meals to all children on school days, but a healthy society is worth that price tag.

The cost of food insecurity and hunger in our states children far exceeds the funding free meals would require.

Children who go to school hungry can develop mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and have difficulty focusing on their academic work, supporters of the Healthy School Meals for All program say.

The health and mental well-being of the next generation should be a priority, no matter what the cost.

Let’s start by making sure the kids are fed.

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