Survey says school districts in New York seeing increased school meal debt

·2 min read

Mar. 14—MASSENA — The loss of federal funding for free school meals has driven up school meal debt in many districts, according to a new report from Hunger Solutions New York.

The statewide nonprofit organization that's dedicated to alleviating hunger surveyed 135 school districts from 27 counties, including Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence..

"This represents nearly 25% of the school districts that lost universal school meals this year," the report said.

The survey found that more than 75% of them reported school meal debt rising faster than ever before. They said that 126 school districts reported a total of $1,414,122.86 in current unpaid school meal debt as of March 2023, and nearly 79% of school districts report that school meal debt is accumulating at a higher rate than previous years.

"Ninety-one districts (86.7%) reported that a cause of school meal debt in their district is families who are unable to pay, but do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Fifty-nine districts (56.2%) indicated their school meal debt is at least in part from families who are unable to pay, but will not submit applications for free or reduced-price meals, indicative of stigma and administrative barriers keeping families from accessing existing programs," the report said.

Massena Central School Food Service Director Kristin E. Colarusso-Martin recently told the district's board of education that 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.

As of Nov. 30, 2022, the district was facing a $79,000 deficit after seeing a $119,000 profit as of Nov. 30, 2021.

If a debt exists at the end of the year, districts are required to cover it through the general fund.

"In schools, 'general funds' are designated for educational and operational purposes and cover costs from salaries for teachers and bus drivers to educational programming for children. When schools need to dip into those already under-sourced funds, it takes away money from educating children to ensure they have the resources and programs they need for learning. It also takes away resources from teachers and transportation — two major areas where NY schools are facing significant challenges," the report said.

"In some schools, the general fund does not cover all outstanding school meal debt. When this happens, schools have to cover outstanding costs using the cafeteria fund, which directly impacts a school's ability to provide healthy and appealing meals to students. Specifically, it cuts into funding for labor, prevents schools from maintaining/updating kitchen equipment, and hinders participation in programs like Farm to School that provide healthy, local meals," it said.