Some middle-class families struggling with school lunch costs

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. For two years during the pandemic, every child in public school got free breakfast and free lunch, but the federal government didn’t renew the program for the 2022-23 school year and middle-class families, dealing with inflation, are starting to feel the pinch. 

Carla Woolston is the food service director for the Marcus Whitman School District in Ontario County. While a little more than half of the kids in this district qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, it’s the other half she’s worried about. The district had to deny dozens of applications for reduced-priced meals, including one from a big family that missed the cutoff by $56.

“I’ve got four kids in the district,” Woolston recalls. “That’s 20 breakfasts. That’s 20 lunches I can’t afford it. What am I going to do?”

There are countless other families in similar situations in districts across the Finger Lakes Region. And while parents can pack lunches for their students, food prices are on the rise too. Woolston has already seen kids not eating or their friends, who do get free lunches, trying to help.

“We had a junior come through the line for his free lunch,” Woolston said. “And then 10 minutes later he comes back into the cafeteria line and approaches one of my staff and says, ‘Could I get lunch?’ She says, ‘Well honey, you just got lunch.’ And he says, ‘I gave it to my girlfriend. She’s a full-pay and I got breakfast this morning but she hasn’t eaten since last night.’”

Marcus Whitman Superintendent Dr. Chris Brown says he’d love to just feed every student but legally he can’t.

“It’s considered to be kind of a gift of public funds when we give a meal to somebody who doesn’t qualify,” he says. 

There is also a program that allows low-income school districts, like RCSD, to qualify everyone for free lunch, but “Right now, we’re at 34% of our families qualify either for SNAP or Medicaid,” Woolston recalls. “For the State to even look at our application we have to be at 40%.”

“We may be considered rural but we’re not in poverty,” Dr. Brown says. “We have so many families that are right on that edge, which a lot of other communities have.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand sponsored the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021, which would have provided free breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack to all school children regardless of their socioeconomic background permanently, but it was not passed.

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC) – We’re starting to hear from a lot of families that are above that low-income threshold but having a hard time keeping up with the price of school lunches. Is this something that’s on your radar still?

Senator Gillibrand – Very much so and so we are going to try to increase the amount of money that we have for benefits so that families can get more dollars to make ends meet by the end of the month.

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC) – So, there’s no avenue, you don’t think, for a universal free lunch for all children anymore? 

Senator Gillibrand – Not yet, but it’s something that we saw be very effective during the pandemic to get resources into communities so that everyone was covered. That is a better model. And so, I’m going to continue to develop bipartisan support for that in the future.

It would have the support of Congressman Joe Morelle. 

“We don’t make certain kids pay for textbooks,” he says. “We don’t make certain kids pay for supplies in gym class or art supplies or transportation to and from school. We shouldn’t make them pay for food.”

Jennifer Lewke – In the meantime, how often if ever do you look at those federal guidelines and can they be adjusted? 

Congressman Morelle – We do from time to time raise income limits. If you never change it eventually because of inflation people will pass by those guidelines and no longer be eligible for the programs. We definitely need to do what we can do but I also think we ought to really have a ramping up of people. As you gain income perhaps we reduce your benefits but not entirely so, let’s allow people to ramp up so to speak to self-sufficiency.

Some of the federal lawmakers who oppose a universal free lunch program say it’s costly and causes inflation which then disproportionately hurts low-income families. Some states have taken it upon themselves to pass free school lunch programs. New York State lawmakers are considering a bill that would make breakfast and lunch free to all students in public schools. 

To address its more immediate concerns, Marcus Whitman is actually starting its own food pantry with the help of Foodlink. The district is hoping to provide those middle-class families who don’t qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch with lunch items that can be packed for their kids among other needs.