Parents are paying up on school meals again. Here's why food advocates are worried they can’t afford it.


Parents of students in Valley Stream — as well as those across the country — are once again forced to pick up the tab for their children’s meals in school after lawmakers in Washington pulled the plug on the federally funded program.

For the past year, a hot lunch and breakfast at school were guaranteed to millions of students across the country at no cost to families, thanks to the universal school meal program.

In a shaky economy, parents of school-aged children — struggling to earn just enough to keep up with basic living costs — came to depend on universally free meals to lighten their financial burden and keep their children fed.

But with the pandemic largely in the rearview mirror, the federal government has decided not to extend the program, requiring parents to pay up on any accruing meal debt since the start of the school year last September.

However, the move comes at a time when the persistent threat of hunger still hangs over many households. Families in Valley Stream and surrounding communities, battered by sticker shock at the grocery store and hikes in electric and gas bills, have turned to village pantries and regional food banks at surging rates. At the same time, many benefits, such as the Emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Allotments, are fading away and not returning anytime soon.

Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages expressed concern about the “hidden hunger” found among families earning just short of the income threshold to qualify for federal and state-backed free or reduced lunch programs but not making enough to pay full price for school breakfast and lunch.

“The impact of inflation on grocery bills is a very real problem for families and the issue of food insecurity has gotten worse,” Solages said. “For some of these kids, the school is the only place where they can secure a nutritious meal.”

Statewide projections estimate that about 470,000 children are not eligible for free school meals but live in households earning less than a living wage.

Superintendents of school districts in Valley Stream have stressed that no student is ever forced to go hungry or denied a school meal because of family finances.

“In those rare instances when a student forgets to bring a lunch in, or their lunch fund needs replenishment, the district will make that day’s lunch available,” Superintendent Don Sturz of District 24 and Superintendent Judith LaRocca of District 13 said in a joint statement. “At no time should a student or a family have any food insecurity during those times the student is in school.”

In the two Valley Stream districts, where roughly 45 percent of students are low-income, 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch — about roughly the same percentage as before the Covid-19 outbreak, according to the state.

In District 30, where roughly 60 percent of students are low-income, officials said they saw a marginal drop in the number of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch this year than before the start of the pandemic.

District 30 Superintendent Roxanne Garcia-France stressed that students’ food needs are closely monitored.

“At this moment in time, the district has not been impacted by the end of the free school lunch program,” Garcia-France said. “If food insecurity is suspected or brought to our school administrators’ attention, the free and reduced school meal application is sent home with a follow-up call by the school psychologist to provide support and assistance.

“We provide our families with information on New York State’s resources, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women, Infants, and Children program, and food banks like Long Island Harvest,” she added. “We continue to strengthen our partnership with the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a regional, nonprofit umbrella organization for health and human service providers to bring awareness of the various services and supports available to our community.”

As the school year continues, the extent of unmet needs found among families across the districts will come into focus as food providers see how much unpaid school meal debt is owed by families this year when compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Higher rates of unpaid meal debt often reflect a struggling money situation at home for families. A recent survey of food service directors across the state conducted by Hunger Solutions New York already found that about half of respondents said unpaid meal debt is a challenge for their school meal program.

Megan Norton, food service director for Valley Stream schools, could not be reached for comment as of press time.

But health and social service experts like Rebecca Sanin, chief executive of the HWCLI, said she refused to wait for data to further confirm the reality they’re seeing on the ground, pushing Albany to fund universal free meals for students in the 2024 state budget.

“Providing free school meals for students in Valley Stream and in all schools really levels the playing field,” Sanin said. “A well-fed child shows fewer behavioral issues. They learn better, listen better, they just do better.  Food insecurity is a serious issue on Long Island, and we shouldn’t accept the notion that any child should go hungry.”

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