The federal free school lunch program implemented during COVID-19 has ended, and school districts noticed an increase in student unpaid meal debt.  Credit: Gordon Grant

After the end of free meals for students enacted during the pandemic, some Long Island school districts are seeing a jump in unpaid meal debt and a statewide survey found that some local providers are reporting these balances are accumulating at a high rate.

“We're really finding that is because there's parents and families struggling with having to make ends meet," said John Murphy, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction & technology in the South Huntington school district, where the unpaid meal balance has about doubled from before the pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture had provided funding for schools nationwide to serve free breakfast and lunch starting in March 2020. That program ended this school year. Now, free or reduced-price meals are available to students, based on family income.

By law, public school districts cannot deny a student a meal. Any student who requests one is served a meal that is charged to their account, which school officials track and try to collect. It’s this debt for which some food service directors have noticed an increase.

What to Know

  • A Newsday survey of LI school districts in January found that some are reporting a surge in unpaid meal balances halfway through the school year.
  • The federal government had provided funding for schools to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students during the pandemic. That program ended at the start of this school year.
  • By law, public school districts cannot deny a student a meal. Any student who requests one is served a meal that is charged to their account. It’s this debt that some food service directors say is increasing.

A survey of food service directors by Hunger Solutions New York found that more than half of Long Island respondents reported unpaid meal debt as a challenge for their school meal program, with half of those saying it is accumulating at a higher rate than in prior years. A recent Newsday survey of districts found some experiencing a surge in unpaid balances this school year.

For example, the South Huntington school district reported about $20,000 in meal debt prior to the pandemic and that figure has almost doubled. Lindenhurst school officials reported an unpaid balance of about $50,000 from late September to January. Patchogue-Medford school officials reported an unpaid balance of more than $48,000 as of early January compared with about $18,000 for the 2018-19 school year.

Unpaid school meal accounts often become the responsibility of the district, which must use its own funds to cover costs that cannot be recouped, educators say.

Robert Vecchio, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, who along with other education leaders have been advocating for a universal meal program in New York, said personnel would rather focus on providing education than tracking and seeking debts from families who may already be struggling.

Food stability during the week would "take a lot of the stressors down" for students, he said. "If a student's mental health is better because they're being better fed, you're gonna have less visits for social work services, maybe less visits to doctors because of malnutrition. So I want to flip the script and say it's not an expense, but it's an investment in our student health and well-being for the long term."

Southampton High School senior Yostinfer Sandoval, 17, said he noticed that some of his peers struggling. 

"I know a couple of my friends whose parents are trying to find a job or have low income and to pay $2 to $3 per meal is kind of outrageous and I think it isn't fair," Sandoval said.

On Long Island, meal prices can range from about $1 or more for breakfast and from about $2 to a little more $4 for lunch depending on the district and grade, according to school menus posted online.

A universal meal program would run about $200 million per year, advocates have said. Other states such as Vermont, Nevada and Massachusetts have extended free meals.

The idea has the support of the state Education Department. While Gov. Kathy Hochul did not include school meals in her proposed state budget, spokesman John Lindsay said the budget includes record funding for education.

"We are working closely with our federal counterparts and encourage them to reinstate the federal universal meal program," he said. 

There are resources that provide free meals for students who qualify by income, but they must complete paperwork and meet certain income requirements — less than $51,338 for a family of four.

In Middle Country where the unpaid meal balance has reached $42,000 this school year, district officials are urging parents to apply.

"We started to see the negative balance going up and up and up and so we have our food services department and food service vendor and building leaders and social workers reaching out to the families to make sure they know that if they qualify, they should fill out the application," said Beth Rella, assistant superintendent for business.

In Southampton, educators have noticed students trying to get by during the day.

“In our high school where we lost free meals for all, students are not eating the healthy, balanced lunch available. Instead, teachers and cafeteria staff see them opt for a $1 snack as they don't have the money to purchase the lunch," said Regan Kiembock, food service director for the Southampton district.

South Huntington, with a $10,000 donation from Stop & Shop, recently expanded a food pantry at the high school this year that students can access. Any student and/or family in the South Huntington school district can request a food package. The pantry is stocked by Life Skills students.

Murphy said the benefit is twofold. "It helps the person in need," he said but also helps others "to understand and identify that this is something we need to do to help out as a community."

Some Suffolk County districts such as Central Islip, William Floyd and Longwood all qualified under a designation called Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP, that considers the income levels within the district's boundaries and provides free meals for all. School systems must have a certain percentage of the student population meet guidelines for federal assistance programs. 

The Longwood district initially qualified in 2019-20 and provides free breakfast and lunch to its nearly 9,000 students, according to Tom Murphy, district director of food services.

The designation eliminated about $85,000 to $100,000 in meal debt per year, he said.

“For us, it’s been very fortunate,” he said. “I was at a meeting with other lunch directors and I know that some of the schools have incurred over $100,000 in student charges already this year … The last two years the federal government fed everybody for free and now they are telling parents you have to pay $3.50 for lunch and they are not doing it."

Melanie Steinweis, West Islip's director of food services, said that while the district has not seen a significant jump in negative balances, she has noticed a drop in participation.

A universal program would mean a lot less stress for families, she said. Studies have shown that when students are well fed, they do better academically, she said.

State Education Department officials said they will start collecting meal debt data in the 2022-23 school year.

Even without the federal program, the neediest 75% of students in New York already have access to free school meals, according to state officials.

The issue came up at a recent legislative breakfast on Long Island when one student asked about it. Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said at the breakfast that "making everything free makes it difficult to fund other areas."

With Michael Ebert

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