At St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva, a new lunch program offering fresh, healthy meals prepared on site will be available to students regardless of their financial status.
According to Principal Mary Mantelli, a special fund was created so any student who wishes may take part in the lunch program, which was launched this year. She noted that per federal guidelines, about 35 percent of the school’s 115 students would qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches if they attended public schools.
The majority of the meals in the new program will cost between $1.50 and $2 each. Salads, quesadillas and tacos made with ground beef are among the menu items. A survey of parents showed that they wanted more fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches, Mantelli said.
“Students who do not have a lunch will always be given lunch here … regardless of their account balance and (will) never be stigmatized for it,” she said.
Fighting such stigma is a goal of a new initiative created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo called “No Student Goes Hungry,” according to information from the governor’s office. The initiative was designed in part to eliminate “lunch shaming,” in which students who cannot afford to buy lunch go without eating or are made to feel embarrassed about their families’ inability to pay.
The state will provide $7 million to 1,400 schools statewide to supply breakfast and lunch every day, and schools that purchase at least 30 percent of the ingredients for the meals from New York farms will receive an increase in reimbursement per meal from 5.9 cents to 25 cents, according to the governor’s office.
The initiative also aims to close the access gap for school meals, the governor’s office states at https://on.ny.gov/2DabfSs. While nearly 60 percent of students in the state’s public schools are eligible to receive a free or reduced-price breakfast at school, only 34 percent of these students eat breakfast on any given day, according to the New York State Education Department.
Child hunger is often associated with students’ lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, repeating a grade and an inability to focus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In order to qualify for the state funding, nonpublic schools like St. Francis-St. Stephen must have 40 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, according to information at hungersolutionsny.org. Even though her school does not qualify for the state funding, Mantelli said she would like to work with area farms to offer local produce for lunches.
Jacqueline Senecal, principal at Rochester’s St. Ambrose Academy, said her school qualifies for and will participate in the state program. Participating schools, also including Holy Cross School in Rochester, are required to create a “Meal Charge and Prohibition Against Meal Shaming” policy, Senecal noted. Such a policy establishes a process to address unpaid meal charges for students who don’t qualify for free meals, without stigmatizing the child, according to information provided by Senecal. St. Ambrose’s policy emphasizes communication with parents if they are in need of financial assistance and prohibits discussing meal charges with children or forcing students to “work” to pay for meals, she said.
Other schools in the diocese operate their own lunch programs, offering options for students who need financial assistance.
At McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton, all students have a gold card that serves as student identification and a debit card to purchase lunch, explained Sean Mullen, the school spokesman.
To assist lower-income students, funding for lunches is provided through McQuaid’s Academic Coaching Program, Mullen said, which also provides access to clothing, books and tutors. Some alumni designate their donations to the program specifically for lunches. The school’s operational budget also includes program funds, he noted.
David Carapella, principal at Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton, said he has been challenging school personnel in other area school districts for many years regarding the issue of lunch shaming.
“It is appalling to me,” Carapella said. “These are our children.”
At Siena, many students bring their lunches. Optional hot lunches are delivered to the school by several local vendors, he said. Many staff members keep microwaveable items on hand for situations when students don’t have lunches or the funds to buy them, Carapella added. If there is food left over from the hot lunch delivery, students without lunches may receive one of those meals, he said.
“Any time a student comes to school without a lunch, we provide for him or her on our own, as no student will ever go without eating,” Carapella said. “At times, a few students will forget their lunch or just not have one … (however) it is uncommon.”