The Long Island Cares program started this week to provide meals for children in low-income areas. The program operates the first day after school ends in June and runs until school begins. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

A federal program that has provided free breakfast and lunch to all students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extended through the summer, but food and nutrition specialists said it still falls short of their expectations.

The $3 billion Keep Kids Fed Act passed Congress on June 24, less than a week before federal waivers that allowed schools to serve free meals were set to expire. Those waivers, authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, provided free meals for all schoolchildren — regardless of family income — and gave districts greater flexibility in how to serve food. The waivers were set to end Thursday. 

Before the pandemic, families had to apply and meet income requirements to qualify for free or reduced meals.

The newly passed legislation is expected to expand to pre-K students, continue through 12th grade, and could allow for options in services, such as offering grab-and-go food or home-delivered meals. It also increases the federal reimbursement rate for breakfast and lunch for the 2022-23 school year.   

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A federal program that has provided free breakfast and lunch to all students since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extended through the summer.
  • Congress passed the $3 billion Keep Kids Fed Act on June 24, as the food program — authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — was scheduled to expire Thursday.
  • The newly passed legislation is expected to expand access to free summer meals for students from pre-K through 12th grade and allow for options in service, such as offering grab-and-go food or home-delivered meals.

"This legislation was critically needed. We just wish it went further to allow free school meals to continue to be extended to all children for an additional school year," said Sherry Tomasky, director of communications and public affairs for Hunger Solutions New York, a statewide nonprofit.

Food banks play key roles

The Island Harvest Summer Food Service Program plays a key role in the distribution of meals on Long Island. Allison Puglia, chief programs officer for Island Harvest, said the nonprofit food bank is awaiting guidance from the state Education Department — which oversees the USDA’s summer food program — on what flexibilities the legislation would provide.

Island Harvest, which runs 35 summer feeding sites across Long Island, had to make plans before the Keep Kids Fed Act passed. Island Harvest's program operates the first day after school ends in June and runs until school begins.

Working with parks, churches, community centers, food pantries and schools in high-needs neighborhoods, Island Harvest serves about 3,000 children during the summer. Puglia estimated that number could double if the legislation offers flexibility such as allowing for grab-and-go meals. Children now must sit for a meal. 

"We work with food pantries and other nonprofit organizations very closely, and some of them have recently shared that the influx of people coming to their site has been more intense than when COVID was strong," Puglia said. "Because of inflation — the gas prices, the food prices and everything else — the community is reaching out."

Another nonprofit, Long Island Cares, working alongside Lighthouse Mission, set up a tent in a Shirley supermarket parking lot on Thursday, where about 15 children sat at picnic tables and ate lunch. The meal included tuna salad, crackers, milk, vegetable juice and peaches. The location is one of 22 sites across Long Island the agency operates during the summer.

The sites provide a nutritional bridge for children, said Kerry Tooker, Child Nutrition Program specialist with Long Island Cares Inc., The Harry Chapin Food Bank. Last summer, the agency offered grab-and-go meals, allowing more children to be served, Tooker said.

"We had certain waivers in place where we were allowed to provide meals to the parents," she said. "A parent could pick up a meal for the children they had at home or children could be with a parent and come and take it off-site with them."

Tooker is awaiting guidance from the state as well for the parameters of the Keep Kids Fed Act.

Last year, the state’s Summer Food Service Program provided meals to about 400,000 children at 3,000 sites statewide, according to the state Education Department.

Families will have to apply again

For this coming school year, families will return to applying for free or reduced meals based on income. A family of four in New York has to earn less than $51,338 annually to be eligible for free meals.

School nutrition directors across Long Island and advocates have said free meals remain a necessity for children and their families, especially with inflation at its highest level since the early 1980s and food and energy costs rising. Research has shown that hunger can impact a child's ability to learn.

"As of now, this measure falls short for next school year as it does not provide for universal free meals for all at a time when families are still struggling," Regan G. Kiembock, director of Food Services for the Southampton district, said in a statement. "I, along with all other school nutrition directors in New York, are awaiting further guidance and clarification from our state agency regarding the [20]22-23 school year. I am … hopeful that it will be extended through next school year and beyond."

Data from Albany-based Hunger Solutions New York showed that about 531 schools on Long Island, serving nearly 325,000 total students, will lose the ability to offer free meals for all students starting this fall. Long Island as a whole has more than 650 schools and about 418,000 students.

The Keep Kids Fed Act also provides districts with an additional 40 cents for each lunch and 15 cents more for each breakfast served above an average inflationary adjustment. Districts are reimbursed by the state and federal government for meals, with the federal government providing the larger share.

Tomasky said the increases provide some financial support to help schools cope with rising food costs, staffing shortages and supply-chain disruptions. The legislation also provides an additional 10-cent reimbursement for food at child care providers and helps schools challenged by supply-chain disruptions.

“On average, schools may not receive the amount of meal reimbursement next year that they have been receiving for the past two school years, but it is still something," Tomasky said.

School lunch and breakfast costs vary across the Island and by grade levels. The average prices students pay statewide when they do not qualify for free or reduced meals is $1.50 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch.

Some other states, including Vermont, Maine and California, recently enacted legislation that provides free school meals for all children. Advocates have pressed New York to do the same, but it would cost the state an estimated $200 million a year. State officials did not address this specifically and said they are awaiting guidance from the USDA to assist child nutrition operators this summer and the coming school year.

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