Like many others across the state, Massena Central School District has often found it difficult to provide food for its poorer students.
In previous years, the district has looked into taking part in a federal program called Community Eligibility Provision. It allows low-income districts to offer free meals for all their students. Massena would need to meet specific household income criteria to participate.
“The Community Eligibility Provision is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications,” according to information about the program posted on the website of the Food and Nutrition Service, part of the U.S Department of Agriculture. “Instead, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.”
Massena Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said the district examined the possibility of applying for this program.
“He said they reviewed their eligibility data in 2015, 2017 and 2020 to see if they qualified for CEP and if it would be financially feasible to participate in the program. Schools must have an Identified Student Percentage of 40% or more of its student enrollment that are eligible for free meals by a means other than a self-reported household application,” an article published Jan. 25 by the Watertown Daily Times reported. “He said their initial review showed that they were not eligible or it was too cost prohibitive. The district would have been required to spend more than $100,000 per year to participate.”
After the novel coronavirus pandemic began, the federal government provided free meals to all students regardless of family income. However, that service ended in June. Massena saw the number of students taking meals declined.
“Food Service Director Kristin E. Colarusso-Martin said they had served 61,633 breakfast meals as of Nov. 30, 2021, and that dropped to 47,588 as of Nov. 30, 2022. The same trend was seen in lunches, where 68,698 had been served as of Nov. 30, 2021, but dropped to 60,580 as of Nov. 30, 2022,” according to a Times story published Jan. 29. “A la carte sales, however, increased from $13,669 as of Nov. 30, 2021, to $37,791 as of Nov. 30, 2022. Food purchases also increased from $178,899 as of Nov. 30, 2021, to $195,180 as of Nov. 30, 2022. However, as of Nov. 30, 2022, the district was facing a $79,000 deficit after seeing a $119,000 profit as of Nov. 30, 2021. Ms. Colarusso-Martin told Board of Education members that 27 employees served breakfast, lunch and snacks to 2,520 students. As of this month, they had served 59,748 breakfast meals, 77,277 lunches, 10,445 snacks and 17 catered events.”
Since this program ended last year, 726,000 students at nearly 2,000 schools throughout New York lost access to free meals. A statewide coalition of more than 250 organizations oversee the Healthy School Meals for All campaign.
This group’s mission is to persuade the state Legislature to allocate sufficient funding in the budget to provide free meals for all students. The cost to do this is projected to be between $190 million and $200 million.
Jessica Pino-Goodspeed is the manager of School Meals Policy & Engagement for Hunger Solutions New York and co-leader of the Healthy School Meals for All. She was one member of the coalition to address the state Assembly Committee on Ways and Means on Feb. 8, urging legislators to provide the money.
The cost of provided free meals for all New York students isn’t cheap. But state officials could likely find the money by finally doing something about fraud in other welfare programs.
For example, the number of New Yorkers who will be enrolled in Medicaid this year is expected to top 9 million. This state has a reputation for not doing nearly enough to stop those who abuse the system. That needs to end.
The benefits of ensuring all students receive free meals at their schools are well known. Legislators should review the proposed budget and allocate the money necessary to meet this goal.
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