ITHACA, N.Y.—June marked the end of a COVID-19 pandemic-era program that provided free school lunch to all public school students regardless of family income.

Now, some schools within the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) will continue to offer free universal school meals for at least four more years through a federally funded program.

The district’s director of school nutrition, Beth Krause, told the Board of Education Tuesday six schools will participate in the program: Enfield, Beverly J. Martin, Fall Creek, Cayuga Heights, and Belle Sherman Elementaries, as well as the Lehman Alternative Community School — about 1,500 students in total.

Krause said she expects all program costs will be covered by a supplemental grant from a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program called the Community Eligibility Provision.

“We’ll get more in reimbursements from the USDA portion of the budget,” Krause said. “It will take the place [of income from meal sales], if not more.”

Federal aid already covers nearly two-thirds of operating expenses for ICSD’s school meal programs — about $2.11 million dollars district wide. With the supplemental funds, the federal share of the budget would increase to an estimated 96% for the six participating schools. The exact dollar amount will depend on several factors, like the number of meals served throughout the school year.

Schools are eligible for the supplemental funding if at least 40% of students are designated “low income” under USDA criteria.

That includes students whose families receive food stamps or are enrolled in Medicaid. It also includes students who are homeless, in the foster care system, those who participate in a local Head Start pre-kindergarten program and those who are migrants or runaways.

Only two schools in the district are eligible for the program in their own right, according to data from the USDA. The federal agency considers 61.9% of students at Enfield and 58.9% of students at Beverly J. Martin to be “low income” as of June 2022.

The USDA allows school districts to pool eligible students across several schools to meet the 40% threshold. This is how ICSD was able to waive lunch fees for students at the other four schools — despite the fact that those schools do not serve as large a share of disadvantaged students.

Krause told board members they could expect an expansion of the free lunch program in coming months.

“We’re looking forward to free nutritious meals for [the entire district]. I can’t say that enough,” Krause said. “I’m hoping it’s by January at the latest but we’ll have to wait for the [federal] government.”

The USDA is currently considering a proposal that would lower the required share of low-income students from 40% to 25%. If that proposal is accepted, Krause said all students within the district would receive breakfast and lunch at no cost.

A May 2023 report from the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Food Research and Action Center found that schools saw reduced childhood hunger and stigma “from the perception that school meals are only for ‘children from low-income families’” when meal fees were waived.

The report also found participating schools saved in administrative expenses because they eliminated the application process previously used to determine which students receive free or reduced-cost meals.

Megan Zerez is a general assignment reporter at the Ithaca Voice. Reach her via email or social media @meganzerez