Debt from school meals is rising in New York nearly a year after federal aid for universal free school meals ended, according to a report from the advocacy organizations Health School Meals for All and Hunger Solutions New York.
The organizations' survey of 126 school districts found nearly all of the districts -- 86.7% -- reported a primary cause of meal debt stemming from families that are unable to pay.
The survey was released amid a bipartisan push in Albany to fund a universal school meal program as the state budget is being negotiated this month in Albany. The proposal, which has backing from Republican as well as Democratic state lawmakers, would affect about 800,000 schoolchildren in the state.
All told, the districts surveyed by the groups found more than $1.4 million in unpaid meal debts.
School meal debt predominantly came from rural districts as well as in suburban schools, the survey found. At the same time, meal debt can cut into a district's finances.
Some districts do not have 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 health meals, the group 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.
Some districts have been relying on donations and fundraisers in order to cover unpaid debts, the group found.
The universal free school lunch proposal is estimated by lawmakers to cost about $200 million within the state budget.