With many families still facing food insecurity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Long Island school districts are worried about losing a federal program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students.
About 800,000 students statewide will be affected when the program expires on June 30, according to Hunger Solutions New York, a statewide nonprofit group. Only students whose parents qualify by income will continue to receive free or reduced-price meals after the expiration.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, with schools switching to remote learning in March 2020 because of the pandemic, issued waivers allowing districts nationwide to serve free breakfast and lunch to all prekindergarten through 12th-grade students regardless of their parent's income.
“Letting waivers expire so abruptly and while providers are still facing significant operational challenges does nothing but pull the rug out from underneath providers and kids struggling with hunger,” said Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, Child Nutrition Programs specialist with Hunger Solutions New York.
WHAT TO KNOW
- In March 2020, the USDA issued waivers to allow free breakfast and lunch for all children nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Congress has not extended the USDA’s waiver authority, and it expires June 30. Advocates say about 800,000 students in New York State could be affected.
- School officials and advocates say free meals remain a necessity for children and families, saying that research shows good nutrition plays a role in a child's ability to learn.
In addition to eliminating the income qualifications, the waivers also addressed operational challenges school systems faced. Long Island districts were allowed to distribute meals to students and families — some even by bus. Some of those efforts continued after schools returned to in-person instruction, as the USDA extended the waivers into the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school terms.
School nutrition directors across Long Island and advocates 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.
Baldwin schools Superintendent Shari Camhi said the meal program eases the burden for parents on busy school mornings.
"Preparing lunch was one of the most stressful parts of the morning in our house," she said. With no-cost meals, "Kids leave and go to school and have breakfast and lunch, and families did not have to worry about it. It does even the playing field for all students."
State asks for extension
The state Education Department has asked New York's congressional delegation to push for an extension on the program, saying research shows nutrition plays a huge role in a child's ability to learn. That isn't likely to happen any time soon, as efforts in Congress to extend the program have been blocked or stalled.
The program initially was funded through $8.8 billion from the CARES Act, part of several federal COVID-19 relief packages approved by Congress.
Meanwhile, the New York State Educational Conference Board, a consortium of seven educational organizations across New York, has urged the state to launch a universal meals program. Doing so would “reduce the stigma for students unable to afford meals, increase the number of students fed during the school day, reduce school paperwork for staff, and allow for a streamlining of meal operations," the board said in a report.
Jennifer Martin, executive director of the New York School Nutrition Association, said two states — California and Maine — have budgeted for free meals. It would cost about $200 million annually for a program as such in New York, but that means additional money would have to be appropriated by the State Legislature, she said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office said in a statement Friday that even with the loss of waivers, “The neediest 75 percent of students in New York will still have access to free school meals.”
Before the pandemic hit, families had to be below certain income levels for their children to qualify for the free meals. A family of four in New York has to earn less than $51,338 annually to be eligible in 2022-23, Pino-Goodspeed said.
Some of Long Island's higher-needs districts, including Hempstead and Uniondale, still will be able to provide free meals because they qualify under a federal designation called the "Community Eligibility Provision." The designation takes into account the percentage of the student population eligible for public benefits programs.
Still, Uniondale is concerned about the rising cost of food and food choices. "It's very important for our students to not have to worry about hunger so they can focus on learning," Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil said.
No-cost meals "should be a right, in my opinion," across all school systems, Darrisaw-Akil said. "Everyone should be provided with the basics in order to learn, and I believe that food is one of the basics that they need in order to be successful."
The Community Eligibility Provision designation sometimes is not universal across a school system.
In the Southampton district, for example, only the elementary school qualified under the provision pre-pandemic. The district plans to continue to serve free meals to the 415 elementary students next school year, but grades 5 through 12 will not qualify for free breakfast or lunch, said Regan G. Kiembock, director of Food Services in the district.
About half of the district's 1,400 students experience food insecurity, she said. Overall, about 250,000 Long Islanders are food-insecure, a more than 14% increase since before the pandemic, according to Long Island Cares Inc., a nonprofit that educates people about the causes and consequences of hunger.
“The economy is still impacted by the effects of COVID-19, and feeding a child is so important," Kiembock said. "We are providing them with iPads and Chromebooks, and we support the students in so many ways. So, why are we going to take away the nutritional piece?”
Program 'saving me money'
Southampton High School senior Neffy Almeida, 18, said the free meal program "has helped me personally by financially saving me money."
Before the pandemic, lunch would cost Southampton students $3.10 per day, and breakfast was $1.85.
The meals include two types of milk, a cup of fruit, vegetables, salad bar choices and kid-friendly meals such as pizza and hamburgers, Kiembock said. Breakfast choices often include low-sugar cereal, yogurt and fruit.
Southampton participates in a program where food from local farms is served as part of a menu planned by a farm-to-school coordinator and a visiting chef. On a recent weekday, students ate a kale salad, beef enchiladas made from scratch and a frozen strawberry dessert.
In the South Country district, the program has served more than 18,000 meals a week to students. The district plans to pay for breakfast for all students next school term using $330,000 in BOCES aid currently budgeted for remote learning programs. Those programs won't be offered in 2022-23.
The funding will be for only one year, said Christine Costa, South Country's assistant superintendent for Finance & Management Services.
Districts are reimbursed by the state and federal government for meals. Having a federal reimbursement for all meals has helped food programs, which are self-sustaining, balance their budgets, food service operators said.
At South Country, which enrolls about 4,000 students, the district received $4.32 per lunch from the federal government for the first half of the school year. That jumped to $4.56 for the second half of the year. The state separately reimburses districts about 25 cents per meal.
Any surplus from this year's reimbursements will be budgeted to next year, when the district will pay for free breakfast, Costa said.
"I have a saying that nothing good happens in a classroom if the most basic needs are not met of our students,” Costa said.
In the Westhampton Beach district, the reimbursement pre-pandemic for a free meal from the state and federal government combined was $2.24 for breakfast and $3.42. The current combined payments are $2.70 for breakfast and $4.62 for lunch. Those amounts pay for everything from staff salaries and equipment to food, said Naim Walcott, school nutrition director with the district.
On average, the district now serves 250 more breakfasts and 300 lunches per day, Walcott said.
Students have gotten used to the meal program the past two years, said Walcott, who also is vice president for the New York School Nutrition Association. He added that having a free-for-all program has eliminated any stigma for those who could not pay.
"If this expires, money will be reintroduced into the school lunch lines for meals, and it will become an obvious identifier between who is paying and who is not," he said.
Under New York's “prohibition against meal shaming” law, schools cannot deny a child a meal or withhold a meal from those who cannot afford to pay.