A handful of Capital Region school districts serve alternative meals — a sandwich, vegetable and milk in place of the full meal of the day — to students who are behind on lunch payments.
It is a policy Gov. Andrew Cuomo is looking to ban.
Cuomo called for an end to alternative lunches last week, as part of a broader set of proposals aimed at expanding the use of federal free lunches, connecting schools to more local food producers and prohibiting “any public act to humiliate a student who cannot afford lunch.”
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Policies in Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Scotia-Glenville and other Capital Region school districts spell out when students are provided the alternative meals. Students who don’t have money for a meal are allowed to charge a day’s regular meal to their account. Depending on grade and district, however, students are limited to how many meals they can charge before being served the alternative options.
District officials said they try to reach out to families before students hit the limit for charging meals. But they also pointed out that districts work to make their food service programs financially self-sustaining and that unpaid meal charges can stress those programs’ finances.
“School food service is a financially, self-sufficient department,” Shenendehowa spokeswoman Kelly DeFeciani said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “The governor has yet to discuss if this will be paid for by the state or if it is simply another unfunded mandate.”
The proposed ban on alternative meals didn’t rate a mention during the governor’s State of the State speech Wednesday, and Cuomo’s announcement last week didn’t specify who would be responsible for paying for the meals.
Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, said after the governor’s speech Wednesday that she was concerned the meal mandate could increase costs to districts.
“I’m going to be reaching out to the superintendents in my district to find out the impacts, but I’m very concerned,” she said.
In a recent survey of superintendents across the state, however, student lunch debts didn’t rank as a high priority for districts, Bob Lowry of the state Council of School Superintendents said.
Some districts that include alternative meals in their food policies said that, in practice, the meals are rarely served, as districts work with families to keep them from falling further behind on lunch payments.
“We do have a policy that says alternative meals, but I haven’t done that yet this year,” Duanesburg food service director Mary Jewell said Wednesday. “You get in touch with the parents and the parents take care of it.”
Chris Abdoo, a Burnt Hills assistant superintendent, said alternative meals are provided to students “very, very infrequently,” and that school officials proactively reach out and work with parents when a student starts to fall behind on lunch payments. Abdoo said outstanding student lunch debt “plays next to no role in the overall financial performance” of the district’s food service program.
“If it changes, we will figure it out and adjust accordingly,” Abdoo said of state law. “It’s not something we are worried about.”
But other districts have moved away from using alternative meals all together in recent years. Mohonasen stopped using alternative student lunches this school year, citing guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that encouraged schools to provide the full meal that other students receive in order to “prevent singling out of children with unpaid meal charges.”
Officials with the Saratoga Springs and Niskayuna school districts said their schools do not use an alternative-meal option. While Schoharie Central School District’s policy limits the number of meals students can charge to five, it also allows the district to provide a student with a full meal beyond that charge limit — “so that he or she does not go hungry that day.”
State lawmakers introduced legislation in the spring that would have effectively banned alternative meals, but neither chamber of the Legislature passed those bills.
Groups that lobby on behalf of district officials said they were still awaiting specific legislative language before judging the governor’s proposal, but they said the question of how to keep district food programs financially solvent needs to be part of the discussion.
“We need to find a way that we can provide students with food but also keep the school lunch program whole, financially,” said David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.
Lowry said when the legislation was proposed last year, the superintendents group suggested allowing districts to keep providing students alternative meals, so long as the alternative meal was an option available to all students.