‘It helps a lot’: Greece parents, students talk free school meals

GREECE, N.Y. – As one federally-funded free school meal program ends, another rises to take its place.

Over the summer, anyone under 18 in the greater Rochester area could get a hot, nutritious meal for free at English Village Elementary in the Greece Central School District. The program, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been running for several years.

Food service employee Sara Ford has been working the register all summer. While she doesn’t collect much cash these days, she does keep track of how many kids come through, and what they’re choosing. On average, they serve between 150 and 200 kids – many of whom come from the free summer camp offered at the school.

“Pretty much the whole time we’ve been doing this since July, we’ve had the same families returning,” Ford said.

One of those families is the Zaso family. Like they have every day this summer, Amanda Zaso came to get lunch Thursday with her five-year-old and seven-year-old daughters.

“It helps a lot because they get a nutritious meal, and it’s not breaking my budget,” Zaso said. “The food out here is expensive.”

Zaso also has a baby at home, and one more on the way. Going into the school year, her girls will continue to get free meals this fall when they attend Brookside Elementary in Greece.

“I’m actually really excited for that, because that’s going to help with us,” Zaso said.

With rising food costs, Zaso said her family has had to make sacrifices when choosing which groceries to buy.

“They love their vegetables and fruits. But, as you know, everything is more expensive nowadays and often we have to get less nutritious food, that we can afford,” she said. “It hurts. I want the girls to have something healthy to eat.”

Twelve-year-old Giovani Pellegrino is homeschooled. He and his family have gotten a free meal at the school several times this summer.

“Today, I got a cheeseburger with cheese sticks and Cheez-Its,” he said. “I also got one of these ice pop things. I haven’t had one of those since I was a little kid!”

Barring the pandemic, free lunches only happened during the summer. But after 2020, federal subsidies meant that every school in the country gave out free meals to all students. After these programs expired, many in New York continued the conversation, advocating for free lunches for all students.

Universal access to nutritious food is something that advocates like Eammon Scanlon say is vital. Scanlon is the director of education policy at The Children’s Agenda, a nonprofit policy advocate based in Rochester.

“Poverty is very endemic to our community, it’s very widespread, particularly among young children,” Scanlon said. “More than half of kids in Rochester live in poverty, and in fact, about half of kids in New York state are on Medicaid.”

In Greece Central School District, the food this fall will be paid for through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Gates Chili, East Rochester, and Holley are also participating in this program. RCSD will also provide free lunches to all this school year, through a separate federal program.

To be eligible for CEP, districts must have at least 40% of students hit a marker of poverty. That could take a few forms, one of which is, of course, hitting the federal poverty level. Other forms include having a status of homeless, runaway, or foster child. All of the markers are meant to target children who may be food insecure.

The CEP is a federal program that increases the amount of funding proportional to the percentage of kids hitting the poverty markers. The federal government will fully pay for lunches in districts where more than 62.5 percent of kids hit the markers.

But the folks at The Children’s Agenda would like to see more.

“The things school districts are doing right now to address food security, by making school meal lunches just free across the board is a great step,” Scanlon said. “What we want to see New York State adopt is to make school lunches free across the board for children across the state.”

Scanlon points to children facing food insecurity – or whose families may struggle to make ends meet – in wealthy districts, too. While many middle class families would benefit greatly from free lunches, they may not qualify as a family for free or reduced lunches. Because of low-income families in high-income school districts, universal free lunches is a must for Scanlon.

“It’s just a way to break down one of the barriers for kids to learn, which is having food insecurity, not being fully present because they’re so hungry and unable to focus,” Scanlon said.