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Some school districts in tough spot as universal free lunch program ends

Students enjoy free breakfast at the Syracuse City School District
Jessica Cain
Students enjoy free breakfast at the Syracuse City School District

Parents may have to make some difficult choices this school year, as prices at the grocery store go up, and a federal program to provide free school meals ends.

Nancy Younglove is the Food Service Director atHannibal Central School District in Oswego County. While the universal free meal program has ended, Hannibal is still able to provide free meals through the community eligibility provision for districts who meet a certain threshold of families in need.

Still, Younglove is concerned for students nationwide. She has worked in the field for more than 20 years and has seen families struggle, like when she worked in the North Rose Wolcott District during the 2008 financial crisis.

“(Students) would come into my office asking to speak to me, and they would be in tears because they didn't know how they were going to eat tonight,” said Younglove. “And they didn't know how their brothers and sisters were going to eat tonight."

In particular, she said she worries about families who just miss the cutoff for free or reduced lunches, and she’d like to see the federal government bring back the universal free meal program.

"It's heart-wrenching, and you've got the federal government who's not seeing that, and it's so frustrating,” said Younglove. “It's so frustrating that they can't treat school meals as part of the education day."

Syracuse City School District Interim Superintendent Anthony Davis said all of the students in his district will also be eligible for free breakfast and lunch through the community eligibility provision.

"It's important,” he said. “The nourishment of our students is extremely important for them to start the day off well and start that learning process, so we're really proud of the fact that we're able to do this."

But many districts are now faced with tough decisions. Central SquareSuperintendent Tom Colabufo said the district was surprised when the universal meal program ended.

"There are a lot of districts, like Central Square that were not near that threshold, so if we were to do something like that, that would then fall on the taxpayers, so we're back to what it was," said Colabufo.

He said Central Square works hard to keep school meals affordable, and encourages anyone who may be eligible to apply for free or reduced lunches.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.