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Clamoring for calories: Universal school lunches are a worthy spend for Albany

What can you get for some $200 million in New York? If you ask the MTA, that nets you maybe five elevators, if you’re lucky. A much better investment is a program of universal free school lunches, as is being pushed now by Albany legislative leaders.

With the federal funding that had covered this worthwhile initiative throughout the pandemic winding down, it’s time for the state to step up to preserve the significant benefits. The USDA will still be kicking in more than $1 billion, leaving our share a rather manageable sum that could hardly be better spent.

Feeding hungry kids shouldn’t really be an area where we’re zealously looking for return on investment beyond making sure the program is efficiently run and reaching everyone, but there definitely is an ROI here. It’s almost too obvious to point out that giving children an opportunity to thrive in school is as direct a shot as we have to future economic prosperity and a productive and civically engaged population, and a precursor to an effective education is kids that are properly fed.

To the inevitable retorts that a fully universal program runs the risk of feeding some wealthy kids, too, we say: eat up youngsters. Their parents are funding the program with their taxes anyway, and having public systems that everyone can enjoy is a longtime point of pride for New York. Rich and poor ride the subways, use the libraries and walk in the parks. The consequence of stigma or bureaucratic hurdles discouraging use of school meals is that kids go hungry, and that’s not an outcome anyone should champion.

Fortunately, the push seems to have solid traction already, being put forth as a priority by leaders in the Senate and Assembly. In the budget wrangling that will be happening over the next couple weeks with Gov. Hochul, this is a plank that should stay firmly in all versions. Hundreds of thousands of children and parents are watching, and they deserve a hand, one laden with a hearty meal.

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