CAPITAL REGION — Every week Jessica Pino-Goodspeed fields dozens of calls and emails from parents and school districts about how families are struggling to pay for school meals.
“We’re seeing story after story in districts of families who are accumulating a bunch of school-meal debt this year,” said Pino-Goodspeed, who is the school meal policy and engagement manager for Hunger Solutions New York.
So Hunger Solutions New York, a non-profit organization aimed at fighting hunger, is working with support from numerous districts across the state, including some in the Capital Region and national, regional and local organizations to push state lawmakers to add around $200 million in the 2024 fiscal year budget to implement universal meals in schools statewide.
“We’re calling on Gov. [Kathy] Hochul to make universal meals a reality in New York state,” Pino-Goodspeed said. “What this means in New York is just creating a more equitable system, that no matter what the kids’ status is in their situation at home, they can come to eat meals for free at school.”
There was a push at the federal level for a universal meal program, but the legislation was never fully approved. Other states like California, Maine and Colorado have since passed policies to fund universal meal programs, Pino-Goodspeed said.
“Our saying and what many other states are saying is that kids cannot wait,” she said. “We cannot let kids go hungry while we wait for the federal government to take action.”
Pino-Goodspeed said kids who miss out on meals can have more difficulty learning.
“Students experiencing hunger struggle to focus, have lower attendance than their peers and are at greater risk of mental and physical health problems,” states a fact sheet provided by Hunger Solutions.
To aid schools during the COVID pandemic the federal government helped provide schools across the country with free breakfast and lunch. The program ended as this school year started.
Because of that, some schools had to go back to requiring families to fill out applications to get their students free or reduced-price meals. But not everyone qualifies.
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.
Pino-Goodspeed said a family of four that made $51,400 is therefore considered ineligible under the program. She said the income eligibility is too low considering the “huge regional differences in the cost of living” in New York.
“Statewide, an estimated 470,000 children are ineligible for free school meals but live in households earning less than a living wage,” according to Hunger Solutions.
Some schools qualify for the federal 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.
Locally the Schenectady City School District and the Gloversville Central School District participate in the program.
A total of 77% of the Schenectady 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.
Gloversville Central School District also participates in the Community Eligibility Program, according to Superintendent David Halloran. He said the district has 2,751 students so to feed them for 180 dates each year would cost the district approximately $2.9 million per school year. The district charges around $1.90 for breakfast and $4 for lunch.
Halloran said they also support the universal meal policy and Schenectady is listed as a supporter as well on the Hunger Solution website.
According to Hunger Solutions, while some rural districts have prevalent poverty that is less concentrated those districts are often ineligible for the Community Eligibility Program.
Then there are some students and families that don’t apply for the free or reduced program due to stigma.
“Participation drops as students get older and more aware of stigma,” according to Hunger Solutions.
“Stigma, literacy and language barriers, and administrative burdens keep many eligible families from submitting school meal applications, driving unpaid school meal debt—an estimated $24.9 million statewide.”
With schools required to have students apply for free and reduced meals again, some districts have seen an uptick in application numbers this school year compared to the pre-pandemic school year.
Mohonasen supports policy
Mohonasen Central School District is just one of the districts in the Capital Region that is supporting Hunger Solutions’ push to have universal meals in districts.
“It’s certainly an area of concern for Mohonasen and for districts around New York State – and the country frankly,” said Superintendent Shannon Shine.
In the 2019-20 school year, 40.5% of students in the Mohonasen district received free or reduced meals, he said. During the pandemic, the school still had to take applications for the program but saw numbers reduced. It’s since crept back up to around the average the school district typically sees, Shine said.
Now, 42% of students receive free or reduced meals.
“I think that number will increase,” he said.
On top of that, 20% of the accounts for families that are ineligible for the free or reduced program are in the rears.
“Meaning even families that don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch can’t pay their bills,” Shine said. “So, if they can’t pay their bills then how about our students that are in poverty.”
He also said the district has noticed that there are 50% fewer students participating in breakfast compared to last year when it was free.
“So, I’m pretty sure a large percent of the students are simply not getting breakfast of any kind,” he said.
Shine said he is a huge proponent of free universal meals and supports the policy push.
He said he read that it would cost $11 billion annually to implement federally.
“I thought it was kind of a bipartisan issue but it did not get traction,” he said.
However, Shine said the state would likely need some federal assistance to operate the program.
“But we’re like this is the right thing to do,” he said. “This year Mohonsaen started supplying all basic school supplies for all students. I’d love to continue on that with free lunch and breakfast for all.”
Assuming students who already get free meals would continue to do so, Shine said it would cost the district an estimated additional $750,000 a year to fully fund breakfast and lunch for students.
Uptick in applications
Other districts in the Capital Region have also seen an uptick in students applying for free or reduced meals.
The Niskayuna Central School District has 18% of students participating in free or reduced meals compared with 2019, when they had 15%, according to the district.
While breakfast prices stayed the same in the district at $1.65 for elementary and middle school students and $2.15 for high school students, lunch prices rose by 25 cents in the elementary and middle schools from $3 to $3.25 and $3.25 to $3.50, respectively. High school students continue to pay $3.50.
In the Scotia-Glenville Central School District 803 students applied for free or reduced lunches this school year compared to 776 in 2019, said Drew Giaquinto, the district’s business administrator.
The district’s breakfast and lunch prices have only risen slightly this year compared to the 2019-20 school year, according to Giaquinto. There is a slight increase also in students participating in breakfast this year–18% to date compared to 16% in 2019-20. However, there has been a slight decrease in students participating in lunch–40% to date this year compared to 45% in 2019-20. Lunch in the district cost more than breakfast.
The district has a no-shaming policy for students who cannot pay “receive the reimbursable meal and approved beverage for the day but are not allowed to charge a la carte meals,” Giaquinto said.
He said it would cost $358,000 to make every meal free to students.
“That would be slightly over a 1% increase to the school taxes,” he said.
The Burnt-Hills school district saw a jump from 17% in the 2019-20 school year to 25% in the 2022-23 school year of students participating in the free and reduced meals program, said Tara Mitchell, the district spokesperson. She said the district lunch prices have only increased 25 cents since 2019.
In the Shenendehowa Central School District 88 applications were received this school year for free or reduced lunch compared to 72 in 2019-20, said Karen Headwell, the director of food services for the district.
Headwell said the district is part of the New York State School Nutrition Association which is also fighting to ensure free meals in school districts across the state.
“We believe that all students should have free breakfast and free lunch,” she said. “It was a great benefit last year and over 70% of our students took advantage of this. Our meal counts have significantly decreased this year.”
Some school districts have been able to find short-term solutions to providing free meals.
In Saratoga Springs the district started providing free meals to all students on Oct. 31, but the the program will only last this school year.
It will cost over $1.1 million to provide every student with free meals. The district was able to save around $832,000 in its food department through food contracts and other efficiencies. To cover the gap, the district will use around $283,000 in COVID relief funds.
District Superintendent Michael Patton has previously said the district is not only starting to see students with negative balances already but has also seen more students applying for free or reduced meals so far this academic year.
Those who have negative balances will still be responsible for paying those charges. However, Patton has said in the past several community members have offered to pay off negative school lunch balances, but it’s not always a guarantee.
Many schools have also begun implementing backpack and food pantry programs to aid students.
Backpacks and pantries
“All these pandemic-related supports that they’ve gotten through these tough couple of years have gone away now and this is kind of one other blow that we’re seeing for districts,” Pino-Goodspeed said. “The reality at the same time is that we’re not seeing an economic recovery for working families. We’re not seeing hunger let up for families with children.”
She said the coalition is working closely with other organizations such as food pantries and food banks.
“Food banks are reporting higher than ever participation in their programs and families going for emergency feeding,” she said. “Hunger is not letting up.”
Districts are also ramping up their pantry and food backpack programs.
Over the past summer, both Schenectady and Mohonasen school districts received thousands in grants to fund their school pantries. The money would provide four additional pantries in Schenectady schools and help continue funding MohonCARES, which provides food, clothing and toiletries to district students.
Other districts like Niskayuna also have pantries to feed students. Nisky NOW (Nutrition on the Weekend) provides weekly food deliveries to families of students in need.
Pino-Goodspeed said the pandemic showed that a universal meal program can work to aid in combating hunger for students. She said that following the program done during the pandemic research showed that “every dollar invested in school meals is a return on investment up to two times in health, equity, environmental and economic benefits,” she said.
Pino-Goodspeed said that this policy would be Hochul’s legacy issue.
“Something that the governor is always remembered for– that she was able to expand on this in this way and really take ownership and celebrate that,” Pino-Goodspeed said.