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School lunch debt is rising in New York: Should meals be free?

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  • Staff Report 

A report from advocacy organizations Health School Meals for All and Hunger Solutions New York has revealed that debt from school meals is rising in New York almost a year after federal aid for universal free school meals ended. The report found that nearly all of the 126 school districts surveyed, which represented around 800,000 schoolchildren in the state, reported a primary cause of meal debt stemming from families that are unable to pay. The districts surveyed by the groups found more than $1.4 million in unpaid meal debts.

Finger Lakes Partners (Billboard)

The report was released amid a bipartisan push in Albany to fund a universal school meal program as the state budget is being negotiated this month. The proposal, which has backing from Republican as well as Democratic state lawmakers, would affect around 800,000 schoolchildren in the state and is estimated by lawmakers to cost about $200 million within the state budget.

According to the report, school meal debt predominantly came from rural districts as well as in suburban schools. Meanwhile, meal debt can cut into a district’s finances, with some districts not having full coverage of meal debt from a general fund. Instead, schools will cover outstanding costs from a cafeteria fund, and using that money can impact the ability to provide healthy meals, the groups said.

“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,” the groups wrote.

The report also found that some districts have been relying on donations and fundraisers in order to cover unpaid debts.