State of school lunches in Tri-Lakes districts

Lake Placid Elementary School students line up for lunch in December 2014. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

SARANAC LAKE — Tri-Lakes schools are offering more free meals to students this year than they did before the coronavirus pandemic. But while school administrators say they’re willing to pay out-of-pocket to keep kids better fed, they’re all hoping New York state picks up the bill, as other states have.

The Lake Placid Central School District is providing universal free meals out of its own pocket, paying around a quarter of a million dollars annually.

The Saranac Lake Central School District is continuing its expanded free meal offerings, which is currently providing 27 additional students with free school meals.

The Tupper Lake Central School District has a high enough poverty rate this year to offer universal free meals, paid for by the state and federal governments.

The federal government funded universal free school meals during the coronavirus pandemic, but when the public health emergency ended and the money stopped rolling in, New York went back to its normal system, despite requests from school districts and advocacy groups.

Lake Placid

The LPCSD started planning to offer universal free meals before the pandemic, Superintendent Timothy Seymour said. The pandemic lessened the financial burden for the district to offer this, since it was paid for by the federal government.

Last year, when the federal money dried up, the district kept offering all students meals, using $215,000 to offset its cafeteria budget, according to Dana Wood, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, finance and support services.

Wood said the high school was averaging 155 free lunches a day, around half the high school population.

This program is an annual decision made by the board in the budgeting process, Seymour said.

“Ultimately, the budget is a manifestation of the goals of the district and the values of the board,” he said. “The board has indicated that this is a value that they hope to maintain at all costs.”

Right now, he said they believe “meeting the critical needs of students, ultimately is going to lead to a better educational experience for the kids.”

Seymour said there are talks in the state to lower CEP eligibility from a 40% poverty rate to 25%. LPCSD is at 28%, Wood said.

Saranac Lake

Districts need 40% or more of their student population to be directly certified for free and reduced lunches through the federal Community Eligibility Provision of the School Lunch Program. SLCSD has consistently been slightly below that threshold. It is a “property rich” district with million-dollar vacation homes, but poverty among many full-time residents. The district has 435 students currently enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program, according to School Lunch Manager Ruth Pino.

SLCSD is in a bit of a middle-ground — not poor enough of a district to qualify for universal free meals through CEP, but not wealthy enough of a district to be able to afford to do it in-house.

So in January, school board members voted to expand free school lunches to more students through a test-run program that added an additional tier for families above the federal free-and-reduced-lunch threshold, but below the ALICE line. ALICE is a metric used by the international nonprofit organization United Way which stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.” Basically, a working family who is above the federal poverty line but who still struggles to get by and pay for all the necessities of life.

SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox said this threshold is around 25% above the federal CEP guidelines.

Pino said this was “very successful” last year. There were not a large amount of families enrolled, but it was helpful for those who were involved.

This expansion offered free meals to 23 additional students at the end of the school year last year. Pino said from January to June, it resulted in these students getting more than 500 breakfasts and almost 850 lunches, which they would not have gotten free otherwise. The district paid $3,255 for these meals with money the district got through the American Recovery Plan coronavirus relief grant. The district is using the last of that money this year, Fox said, and has budgeted $10,000 for free school meals this year.

The program was continued this year and Pino said it aids a total of 27 students now.

An application and chart of who qualifies can be found at tinyurl.com/zsj8vm99. For example, a family of four earning $66,026 annually or a family of two earning $43,466 annually qualify. Pino said there is no deadline to apply. For anyone who applies for federal free and reduced lunches and doesn’t qualify, she automatically sees if they qualify for the local expanded program.

“Any extra child that we can have get lunch who wouldn’t get lunch otherwise is a good thing for us,” Pino said.

In July, school board members voted to keep school meal prices the same from last year. Saranac Lake students pay $1.65 for breakfast and $2.85 for lunch. Adults pay $3.50 plus tax for breakfast and $4.90 plus tax for lunch.

In July, the board also sent a formal request to the New York State School Boards Association, asking it to lobby the state for universal free school lunches in the coming year. The state Senate and Assembly proposed $280 million for universal free school meals, but Gov. Kathy Hochul opposed this and it was left out of the final state budget.

SLCSD board member Joe Henderson, who lobbied for this funding in Albany last year, said he wishes they could give free meals to all students.

“New York state still refuses to provide universal school food,” Henderson said.

Fox said she hopes state eventually sees the “gift” universal free school meals would be for children.

“In my opinion, it’s just a shame that the state or federal government doesn’t just make it so that everyone can have a free or reduced lunch,” Pino said.

Tupper Lake

This year, Tupper Lake schools are able to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students, as the district has reached a poverty threshold qualifying it for federal reimbursements for universal free meals.

The district qualified to get free meals for everybody through CEP by meeting the percentage of families who automatically qualify for free and reduced meals through receiving services like SNAP or Medicaid in the district.

In years past, qualifying for CEP would only get the district a 60% reimbursement for universal free meals. The district would still need to make up 40% itself.

Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES Assistant Superintendent for District Finance and Operations Dan Bower said there would still have been a gap that the local taxpayers would pick up.

“We couldn’t really take advantage of it because we would have been losing money even though we qualified,” he said.

But this spring, the state began setting aside money to pick up the difference in that gap, to spread the costs across the state instead of it being borne by the local taxpayers.

Bower said this allows them to take advantage of the high poverty rate this year to offer free school meals to all students at no direct increase in costs to Tupper Lake taxpayers.

California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico and Vermont offer universal free lunches in their public schools.

Starting at $1.44/week.

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