End of federal free school meals for all poses challenges to families, districts

On Board Online • September 19, 2022

By Merri Rosenberg
Special Correspondent

During the past two years of the pandemic, federal funds fully covered meals for each student, no matter what their family's income. It was an especially valuable subsidy when many districts went out of their way to deliver or otherwise supply food to students and their families during the initial lockdown period.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture's waivers for the program ended earlier this summer. Many school administrators are not happy about this change.

"From a national standpoint, this is a huge policy misstep," said Joseph Ricca, superintendent in White Plains in Westchester County. "In terms of feeding America's children, this should not be a question. These are our kids. For the past two years, we have been feeding everyone without parents and guardians having to go through the process of having to be judged on their income. It's extraordinarily short-sighted."

"Free meals eliminated the stigma" and got more students fed, said Michael Hayden, superintendent of the Clyde-Savannah Central School District in Wayne County. "We all know the importance of providing two healthy, nutritious meals to students. It impacts their learning."

Legislators in Maine and California have decided to subsidize school meals, so all students can get free breakfast and lunch this school year. NYSSBA supports New York following suit by providing universal eligibility at state expense, according to Executive Director Robert Schneider.

"All the major educational associations in the state are also supporting the creation of a universal school meals program," Schneider said. "There was hope that the federal government would do so in the Build Back Better Act, but now it's up to individual states."

Given the current combination of inflation, food supply chain issues and economic uncertainty, school meals remain critical for many families, according to experts.

"Families are facing a hunger cliff at the same time as they're facing higher prices at the grocery store and elsewhere," said Krista Hesdorfer, a child nutrition program specialist at Hunger Solutions New York, during a recent webinar. The webinar, entitled Resources & Strategies for Navigating Meal Program Changes in the 22-23 School Year, was organized by Hunger Solutions New York and the New York School Nutrition Association.

Basically, federal meals policy is returning to what it was pre-pandemic. Parents must fill out income eligibility forms to see if their children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

But returning to a pay-as-you-go system is complicated by the fact that New York has banned "lunch shaming" in some form since 2018. State law ensures children will still be able to get a hot meal regardless of how much debt the family has accrued in student meal accounts. It also limits the ways that schools can seek to settle meal accounts with parents. The magnitude of the financial impact this will have on districts is unclear.

Schools in areas with high poverty can once again apply for "community eligibility." Participating schools receive federal money to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.

The federal reimbursement varies based on participation in various federal means-tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The amount of federal support does not always defray all costs. Schools can break even if 62.5% of a school population is deemed eligible.

"The schools in my district qualify for community eligibility, and we're committed to participating in the program," said Donna Riviello, food services director at the Clyde-Savannah Central School District. "We will probably lose money. [but] reaching all students is a matter of equity and inclusion. We do everything to make sure students aren't identified as qualifying for free or reduced meals."

The pandemic "shined a spotlight on school meals," according to Riviello, who is president of the New York School Nutrition Association. As school buses were repurposed to deliver meals or students flocked to pick-up spots, there was no question about how important school-prepared meals were to countless families.

The end of free school meals for all will have "the biggest impact on small rural districts," Riviello said, adding that "many of our rural districts are in food deserts, where a Dollar General is the only access."

And affluent communities may be affected.

"I've even heard from wealthier districts that their families are feeling the pain at the pumps, feeling it at grocery stores and in electric bills," said Riviello. "They're relying on school meals as a savings for them."

The bottom line? "Districts will have to subsidize meals," she said.

"Districts want to get as many kids participating as possible, so they are fed, and to maximize economies of scale," noted Jessica Goldstein, NYSSBA's deputy director for policy services. But now districts have to see how many parents fill out applications. Many families who have not filled out forms for two years will have to be contacted and entered into the system.

"This is an essential shift that affects all schools," said Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, a child nutrition program specialist at Hunger Solutions New York. "For the past two years, most schools have not collected the meal application data."

One district that is actively seeking applications is Ossining in Westchester County. "We are going back to educating our families," said Superintendent Raymond Sanchez. No matter what, said Sanchez, "we're not going to let kids go hungry. That's a fundamental need." Should there be a budget shortfall, he said, "maybe we don't do something we had planned."

There are also administrative issues to consider. In Rockland County, Clarkstown district, superintendent Marc Baiocco anticipates discussions about the price points to be set for the meals.

"We have to go out to bid for produce, and resources," Baiocco said. "There are higher prices and supply chain issues. Echoing many administrators, he said, "We're not going to deny any child a meal."

Beyond urging state officials to create a universal school meals program, NYSSBA is urging federal representatives to support the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization, which would:

  • Expand the number of districts that qualify for community eligibility.
  • Increase reimbursement rates for such districts.
  • Increase reimbursements overall.

"Federal and state meal reimbursement policy has a huge impact on local school districts' ability to fulfill their missions," Schneider said. "It's very basic. A hungry child cannot be expected to learn."

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