At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, students in public schools across the state, including Valley Stream, received breakfasts and hot lunches at no charge, but the pandemic emergency benefit was never meant to last.
When the 2022 school year started, federal funding had dried up. The program was pulled, and more than 700,000 students statewide, including many in Valley Stream, lost access to free school meals.
What a difference a year makes. A federal move to expand eligibility for a separate and much older free-meals program has stepped in to take the place of the pandemic effort.
Known as the Community Eligibility Provision, the program grants virtually the same benefit to Valley Stream students, but extends its coverage for four years.
From Nov. 1 of this year to June 2027, breakfasts and hot meals will be free for all Valley Stream students, regardless of financial hardship or need. While they will be served the same food as in previous years, the program will exclude additional indulgences or “a la carte items” like chips, cookies and ice cream.
This extended provision has been heralded by school officials, public health experts, and stakeholders as a major win for families, easing their financial strain and shielding their children from hunger on a scale largely unseen in Valley Stream.
“This is a significant step forward in the district’s ongoing efforts to provide nutritious breakfast and lunch to all students while simplifying the process for families,” Valley Stream District 30 noted in a statement.
“With CEP approval, there is no longer a need for families to complete complex meal applications, streamlining the process and reducing paperwork for parents and guardians.”
School officials also note the CEP’s all-inclusive nature avoids the sting of stigma that unavoidably comes with singling out needy families who qualify for free or reduced meals.
The Community Eligibility Provision directs federal and state dollars to help school districts subsidize the cost of school meals. For any public school to enter the program, a certain portion of a district’s student population, traditionally at least 40 percent, must be eligible for free school meals.
Up until recently, the program benefit was inaccessible to Valley Stream schools whose populations danced at but never could pierce the cusp of the eligibility threshold. That changed when the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered the threshold to 25 percent, allowing more schools to qualify.
Normally, school districts and parents are expected to make up the difference for what federal and state funding dollars won’t cover. But this year, an unprecedented $134 million in school meals was allotted in this year’s state budget, allowing participating schools to be reimbursed by the state for the cost of all meals.
Since the end of the pandemic-era free meals program, lawmakers in Albany have been eyeing a legal pathway to make the benefit permanent.
“Assembly member Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas sponsored Bill A1941 which will make a universal free school meal program permanent,” said Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages. “I support this legislation, and we will continue to push for its passage and a budget that includes funding to combat food insecurity in schools as well as culturally sensitive options to ensure all children can have a meal.”
Such lofty ambitions may run into looming financial obstacles. Fiscal hawks are quick to point out that the state’s enormous financial buffer for funding free school meals in this year’s budget was exceptional for a reason.
Flushed with federal cash in the form of pandemic state aid and a larger-than-anticipated share of tax revenue, the state was able to be generous with its spending. In next year’s budget, however, state spending will be recalibrated and more closely controlled to reflect the state’s pending debt obligations.
“Last year when we were heading into the state’s executive budget process, we had a budget of $148 million to close,” said Patrick Orecki, director of state studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, the non-profit fiscal watchdog. “Right now, our projected budget gap is $4.3 billion.”
“It’s a completely different fiscal landscape,” Orecki said. “So, the opportunity to spend a lot more on a new program, or increase spending somewhere is much, much more limited.”
Unlike the federal government, the state is constitutionally obligated to balance its budget, which is already struggling to fund growing Medicaid service programs and where school aid already takes an enormous amount from the spending pot.
Despite daunting budgetary roadblocks, many lawmakers and public health advocates are determined to make a universal meal program financially viable. For them, the long-term, economic benefits produced from investing in a free meals program outweighs the cost.
Solages argues that feeding kids is more than a moral imperative.
“Chronic youth hunger can lead to learning loss and other long-term negative impacts on our state’s economy,” said Solages. “Funding this program is a cost-effective way to combat food insecurity, improve education outcomes, and reduce the cost of living in our state.”