NY state budget funds free school breakfast and lunch
New York's recently passed state budget includes $134 million for funding free school meals for students. The state will reimburse schools participating in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
In the North Syracuse Central School District, school lunch for pre-K through fourth grade is $3.25 per meal or $16.25 for an entire week of lunch. For fifth grade through high school that cost is $3.50 per lunch or $17.50 for the entire week of lunch. A week's worth of breakfast is $11.25 at $2.25 a meal.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government funded free school breakfast and lunch for all students. But funding dried up and the program ended in June of last year and about 700,000 students in the state lost access to meals.
Current guidelines say a family of four must earn an annual income below $36,075 to qualify for free lunch. Healthy School Meals for All said this means around 470,000 children who live in households earning less than a living wage don't qualify.
Gov. Kathy Hochul did not include the program in her initial proposed budget. State Sen. John Mannion (D-Syracuse) said the legislature stepped up, noting the success of the program in the pandemic and pushed for its inclusion in the state budget.
"I feel very strongly that school meals for all students may be the most consequential achievement in this year's budget," Mannion said.
Schools currently qualify for the CEP program if 40% of their students qualify for free meals. The federal government said it would drop this threshold to 25%.
Mannion said the state funding combined with federal government assistance means free school breakfast and lunch will be available to 81% of the state's student population.
"It helps kids learn," Mannion said. "It helps them succeed. It provides them with the stability that's necessary to be successful in school and it removes some of the stigma that is involved when we're talking about students in a school setting that are hungry and may not have the funds necessary to purchase breakfast or lunch on that day."
Kimberly Nasby, school nurse at Bear Road Elementary, said students frequently come in with stomachaches and it's often because they're hungry. She said she keeps a drawer full of granola bars in her office as many students don't eat breakfast.
"It goes across all economic lines and all socioeconomic lines in this district and around the state," Nasby said. "In central New York, we have many, many students whose parents just are above that, that line of being able to afford the free school lunch program here. This being passed serves everyone in this district, but it certainly serves the students that we take care of every day."
Dan Bowles, superintendent of the North Syracuse Central School District, said students should not have to worry about hunger when they're trying to learn. He noted students are participating in state testing and should be able to focus on their work, not the rumbling of their stomachs.
"As adults, we recognize that we are not productive when we are hungry so imagine the impact on the child," Bowles said. "Food insecurity is a growing problem, and without the diligence of our local politicians, this would not have become a reality."
State Assemblyman Al Stirpe (D-Syracuse) said access to breakfast and lunch is at the core of a student's academic performance and well-being.
”In this year's budget, the state continues to step up and secured funding to expand access to free school meals for students," Stirpe said. "It will help remove the financial burden many local families experience and lessen food insecurity in our state. Ultimately it is one less barrier for our students and one less concern for our families."
Mannion said this helps families make ends meet.
"We know that kids don't do well, their homeostasis is not in place when they're trying to learn on empty stomachs," Mannion said. "They're facing the stigma of needing a meal in school that sometimes they cannot afford or they don't have the money to pay for. This will have an immediate positive impact on our school communities."
The program goes into effect in the fall.