As school resumes this week, more New York students than ever will be able to receive free meals at school regardless of household income, but advocates say they're not done fighting to make the benefit available to all students while officials wait for an expansion of the federal program to take effect.

The last state budget included $134 million to help New York schools subsidize expiring federal pandemic aid and provide more students free breakfast and lunches. The new state subsidy will allow more than 160 school districts to provide free meals at over 550 schools this next academic year, state Education Department officials said Tuesday.

It was a fight that had bipartisan support this session, but was less than the $210 million advocates wanted to fund a universal program. The Legislature included $280 million in their budget proposals to fund universal free meals in New York public schools.

"So we're short about $60 million, give or take, which is a significant amount of children," said Kyle Belakopitsky, executive director of the state Congress of Parents and Teachers. "So those families are still going to have to struggle a little bit."

The deadline was Aug. 31 for high-need and and low-income districts to apply for the state subsidy. 

Advocates say a congressional and federal solution is needed to make free school meals an option for all students statewide. 

"We're still not fully state funded," Belakopitsky said. "We really, really need a congressional and [USDA] solution on this."

The Community Eligibility Provision, within the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch and Breakfast program, reimburses districts with certain levels of poverty to provide meals to all students at no cost. 

The current provision gives school meals at no cost to districts with at least 40% of its student population certified for free or reduced-price meals verified through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps data, information about students in foster care, enrolled in Head Start, or other information about students who are homeless, a runaway, or migrant, according to the Education Department.

A new USDA rule proposed this spring will lower the threshold to 25%. It's unclear when the new rules will take effect, but state Education Department officials said Tuesday the change is anticipated sometime this fall.

"The NYS Education Department is thrilled that, with the new Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) state subsidy in place to cover the funding gap, more eligible schools than ever are providing free school meals to all enrolled students this school year," SED spokesman JP O'Hare said in a statement Tuesday. "As we await the federal expansion of CEP in the upcoming months, we look forward to providing additional schools with the opportunity to provide free meals. The CEP state subsidy, combined with the anticipated lower federal eligibility requirements for CEP, will open a window of opportunity for many students across the state to receive meals at no cost. We expect that as many as 2.3 million New York state students will have access to healthy free meals every school day once these program changes go into effect."

About 500 districts provide free school meals at over 3,000 schools in the state under the current Community Eligibility Provision requirements.

The expansion could make an additional 700 school buildings eligible to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, meaning 84% of New York students enrolled in a National School Lunch and School Breakfast school will have access to free meals, according to the department.

Advocate say applications will reopen for the 2023-24 academic year if the rule change takes effect mid-year. The benefit won't be retroactive for the newly eligible districts, but will allow a school to apply and start offering free meals immediately, as opposed to waiting until next year. 

Districts may be eligible for CEP, but federal reimbursement level varies based on the prevalence of poverty within the student body. It's why lawmakers say they expect to push to increase state funding in the next for free school meals in the next budget fight to make districts whole, or fill in reimbursement gaps not covered by the federal government.

"We had incredible support in the Legislature across the aisle, both in the Senate and Assembly, so we're really optimistic this year that we can get the rest of this done to make sure that every kid in your state has access to a free meal," said Jessica Pino-Goodspeed, manager of school meal policy engagement with Hunger Solutions New York.

Up to 2.3 million New York students will be eligible when the program eligibility expansion takes effect.

"We know that hungry children cannot learn," Belakopitsky said. "We know that nearly 60% of our students live in some type of poverty. They are food insecure. It is our job as educators and an education system and state and as good citizens to make sure that every child is fed. This is not a partisan issue."

Advocates like Pino-Goodspeed say individual states are stepping up to the task amid uncertain federal action.

"There is no movement at the federal level for universal meals to get done in this political environment," she said Tuesday.

They'll continue to fight for more state support, she added, as some districts decided not to opt in for the additional state aid in fear the funding will be cut from the next budget, facing an estimated $9.1 billion deficit.

"There's also stigma around that's always going to exist around free school meals until it becomes a universal program," Pino-Goodspeed said.