Extension eyed for free food in schools

Photo by Katerina Holmes/Pexels

MASSENA — A consortium of seven statewide educational organizations wants lawmakers to launch a free universal school meals program for all students in the state.

U.S. Department of Agriculture waivers had been put in place toward the end of the 2019-20 school year, but have since been extended to June 30, the end of the 2021-22 school year, allowing schools to provide meals at no charge to all students.

The New York State Educational Conference Board would like to see that provision continue beyond June 30.

The ECB released a paper this week that recommends several steps to expand the reach of current state and federal school meal programs, streamline the eligibility process for students and reduce costs for school districts as part of the universal approach.

Among the recommendations is a call for the state to ensure all public school students continue to be offered free breakfast and lunch.

“Universal school meals programs reduce the stigma for students unable to afford meals, increase the number of students fed during the school day, reduce paperwork for school staff and assist districts in streamlining their meal service operations,” the ECB recommended.

The board noted that California and Maine will launch statewide programs starting in the 2022-23 school year.

Among other recommendations is to increase state and federal meal reimbursements to keep up with the rising costs of food.

“The combination of inflation and supply chain shortages has caused the price of nutritious meals to increase sharply. ECB calls on both the state and federal governments to increase meal reimbursements,” the board said.

Money from the federal Build Back Better Act, if passed by Congress, could lower the cost of a universal free meals program in New York, but ECB is also calling for state action to help improve efficiency and ensure that no students are excluded because of cumbersome or complex eligibility requirements.

The Build Back Better Plan is legislative framework proposed by President Joseph R. Biden ahead of his inauguration. It includes funding for COVID-19 relief, social services, welfare and infrastructure, in addition to funds allocated toward reducing the effects of climate change. The Build Back Better Act, part of the plan’s framework, passed the House in November. As is, the bill is expected to fail in the Senate.

ECB officials are also calling for an expansion of a program known as “direct certification” to make sure that more students, including those who are homeless or in foster care, are automatically certified to receive meals. Direct certification is an electronic data-matching process that automatically certifies income-eligible students to receive free or reduced-price school meals.

“In New York State, children from families receiving SNAP and/or Medicaid benefits are eligible for direct certification. Children who are homeless or in foster care may be eligible for direct certification but are currently not included in New York’s DCMP (Direct Certification Matching Process) allowable categories,” the board said.

Recommendations were also included to reduce childhood hunger and increase school meal flexibility.

“In order to continue to feed students during a pandemic that limited access to a traditional school cafeteria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided school districts multiple waivers to enhance flexible meal deliveries. Those waivers are slated to expire June 30, 2022. Furthermore, as districts face supply shortages with their vendors, they are seeking alternative solutions to quickly acquire food their vendors are no longer able to provide,” ECB officials said.

“Students need healthy meals to be physically and mentally ready to learn when they come to school,” ECB Chair John Yagielski said in a statement. “Adoption of these recommendations can help ensure that all children receive nutritious breakfasts and lunches, no questions asked, regardless of their home address or family income.”

“No child should be denied nutritious school meals because of paperwork requirements or red tape,” he added. “All students deserve an opportunity to be at their best when they are in school.”

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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