A pair of local school districts this week received a series of grants to help combat food insecurity, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic and inflation that officials fear will grow worse if a program providing all students with free meals ends in the coming days.
The Schenectady City School District is set to build food pantries in four of its schools after receiving a $9,930 grant from No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit group working to end child hunger in the United States.
The district was one of 39 organizations, including school districts and nonprofits, across the state to receive a combined $740,000 in grant funding from No Kid Hungry to support daily programming and purchase kitchen equipment and food.
Mohonasen Central School received a $15,000 No Kid Hungry grant and a separate $10,000 grant from the Wright Family Foundation to support its MohonCARES program, which provides food, clothing and toiletries to district students.
“We’re proud to partner with these school districts and organizations and support their programs so that all New York kids are fueled to succeed,” Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry New York, said in news release. “As we continue to see rising prices in all basic necessities, we have to rush more help so families aren’t facing hunger at home.”
In Schenectady, the district plans to build pantries in Yates, Pleasant Valley and Keane elementary schools, as well as Schenectady High School. The district already operates a pantry at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School through a partnership with Schenectady Community Ministries.
Karen Corona, a district spokesperson, said the schools were selected based on need, and the district plans to run the pantries, which will initially be stocked with non-perishable food items, similar to how it operates the existing pantry at King elementary. The goal is to eventually stock perishable items.
The district plans to further discuss the pantry operations later this summer, but Corona noted the pantries are part of the district’s new community schools initiative, which seeks to turn schools into community hubs through community partnerships.
The grants come at a time of soaring inflation that has strained families, and just days before a program that provided millions of students across the country with free school lunch and breakfast is set to expire on June 30.
Food prices have risen sharply over the past year, growing by 9.4% between April 2021 and April 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agricultural. Gas prices have also increased in the past year, from a state average of $3.13 per gallon to $4.98, according to AAA.
Schenectady schools participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, a program run by the USDA, which allows the nation’s highest poverty schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.
A total of 77% of the district’s 9,080 students were considered economically disadvantaged during the 2020-21 academic year, the equivalent of 6,959 students, according to data from the state’s Department of Education.
But at Mohonasen schools, Superintendent Shannon Shine said 46% of students were eligible to receive free or reduced lunches during the 2019-20 academic year, prior to the universal free lunch and breakfast program being instated.
The universal program, approved by Congress in response to the pandemic, allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue free meal waivers to students regardless of family income.
Legislation to extend the program through the 2022-23 academic year cleared the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday but was still pending a Senate vote.
Before the universal program was implemented, only students from families with an income up to 130% of the poverty rate were eligible for a free lunch, the equivalent of $34,450 for a family of four. Those whose families’ earned up to 185% of the federal poverty rate, or an annual income of $49,025 for a family of four, were eligible for reduced lunch prices.
Shine said the district didn’t have any data on the number of students that would be eligible to receive free or reduced lunches should the universal program not be renewed, but he noted that nearly half of the more than 800 students enrolled in the district come from economically disadvantaged families.
During the 2020-21 academic year, 42% of the district students, the equivalent of 351, were considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data.
Meanwhile, the MohonCARES program, created to provide essential items to district students, saw 2,500 visits at its high school location alone during the 2018-19 academic year, according to the most recent data provided by the district.
The program, which is funded entirely by donations and grants, provides free clothing and toiletries to students as well as a weekend backpack program at each of the district’s four schools. Bradt Primary School and Mohonasen High School also operate a food pantry.
The district is planning to significantly bolster the program using the $25,000 in grant funds awarded this week, including the purchase and installation of an air conditioner unit for the high school food pantry, which operates during the summer months.
Plans also call for installing new cabinets and shelving at its food pantries and purchasing chest freezers for all school buildings, and new refrigerators will also be purchased for Bradt Primary, Pinewood Intermediate and Draper Middle School. The district is also planning to purchase utility carts for all buildings, reusable aluminum water bottles as well a washer and dryer.
Shine said he expects there will be an increased need for the program if the universal free meal program is not renewed.
“We are definitely expecting such an increase in need,” he said in an email. “The universal free lunch program was a fantastic program and should be continued.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.