School systems across Long Island are offering free meals to more children this school year, after a federal program that provides breakfast and lunch was extended and offered to all districts — and all students.
A change in U.S. Department of Agriculture policy, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, allows school districts to apply for free meals for all students through June 30. Districts typically provide meals to students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"This unprecedented federal program recognizes the fact that the pandemic has presented unique challenges to all families," said Christine Costa, assistant superintendent for finance and management services in the South Country Central School District. "Some families are faced with job loss or loss of income, some are battling illness, others are adjusting to remote learning protocols, and more are struggling with child care and social emotional needs."
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in August that school districts that offered summer meal programs could continue serving the free meals through Dec. 31. Earlier this month, the USDA announced the extension of the child nutrition program through June, for all schools nationwide.
The nutrition program is covered by some $8.8 billion the USDA received from the federal CARES Act stimulus package approved by Congress earlier this year.
Research shows that good nutrition plays a role in a child's ability to learn, educators said.
"When kids are hungry, they can't concentrate. And if stomachs are grumbling, they cannot focus on learning," Valley Steam 13 Superintendent Constance Evelyn said.
The New York State Education Department, which oversees the nutrition program, said in a memo Tuesday that it would participate through the end of the school year. State officials said Thursday that the number of districts participating was not available.
But Mark Bordeau, president of the New York State School Nutrition Association, which represents 4,000 school nutrition professionals across the state, including on Long Island, said most districts statewide are in the extended food program. There are other federal programs that provide free meals to students, but districts have to qualify for them.
"Under this emergency situation, the USDA is giving every district the opportunity to serve kids for free," said Bordeau, who also serves as senior director of food services, Broome-Tioga BOCES. "It is one less thing parents have to worry about. They have to worry about day care and child care and having the child learning at home, and having those free meals is just a nice relief for those parents."
School districts are reimbursed by the state and federal government for meals served under the program. For example, the South Country district in eastern Suffolk County is reimbursed about $2.36 for breakfast and about $3.66 for lunch, per student, per meal.
South Country, which had a summer nutrition program, is reporting a 60% increase in meals served to students in September compared to the same month in 2019. Last year, the system served 39,881 breakfast and lunch meals during the opening month of school, the district said. This year, that number was 64,777.
Like many other districts across the Island, South Country provided meals to children after schools closed in mid-March at the start of the pandemic. The district organized a system for families to pick up premade meals.
Before the roughly 4,000 students returned to South Country this fall, tables were removed from the lunchrooms at the middle and high schools, and desks spaced six feet apart replaced them. Dividers were installed to separate food service workers from students on the lunch line.
"It's really interesting how much everyone stepped up to the plate — from the principal to the lunch monitors. It was a model that changed very quickly," Costa said.
Breakfast now is being served on tables, where students grab meals to eat in the classroom, Costa said. Elementary students eat in the classrooms, with meals delivered by food service workers.
Students who attend school in-person two days a week are sent home with three days of meals in their backpacks. On an average week, the district is sending home about 7,000 meals — cold options, and dishes that can be reheated. The district's full remote learners — about 20% of students — pick up their meals.
One week, the district distributed 9,840 meals to the students, offering items such as pizza, fruit, vegetables and low-sugar items.
The Valley Stream 13 district, which enrolls about 1,900 elementary students, also is serving meals under the USDA program, Evelyn said. The students, who wear masks for the school day and remove them for meals, eat behind dividers installed at their desks.
"Children are very resilient and I think more amenable to change than adults. They have been remarkable in following the safety protocols, even while they are having their lunch and breakfast," Evelyn said.
The district is serving 200 breakfast meals and 450 lunch meals per day, district officials said.
In the Glen Cove district, which has 3,100 students, hybrid learners are provided with meals to go on the days they are not in school, and any full remote learner can pick up meals on Mondays and Wednesday at the high school, giving them six meals to take home through the week. On a recent Wednesday, the district distributed 170 prepackaged meals.
Superintendent Maria L. Rianna said the district offered free breakfast and lunch to K-5 students last year, then extended that program to the upper grades under the federal change this year.
The district also ran a food pantry stocked with donations from the community and extended that service into the summer. Volunteers delivered the boxes in the neighborhood, averaging about 300 per week. That pantry still operates, but is now being run off-site at a local church.
"As a result, we were able to provide a plethora of food for our families during very hard times," Rianna said.
LUNCH BY THE NUMBERS
The South Country school district in eastern Suffolk County participates in a USDA program that provides free breakfast and lunch for all its roughly 4,000 students. Here's a comparison of how many meals were served last year compared to 2020:
- September 2019: 9,592 breakfast meals served. September 2020: 25,828 breakfast meals served.
- September 2019: 30,289 lunch meals served. September 2020: 38,949 lunch meals served.
SOURCE: South Country Central School District