HARTFORD, N.Y. (NEWS10) — It’s a trip to east Asia on a tray Thursday at Hartford Central School District. Capital Region BOCES and district leaders getting creative to serve up Lunar New Year—a concept that may be new to many kids in this rural, upstate community.

“Access and opportunities to exposure to varying cultures is somewhat limited, so if we can introduce this outside the classroom and bring in those cultural aspects and food aspects and start to educate students outside the classroom, it’s a huge bonus for us,” says Superintendent Andrew Cook.

NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton grabbed a tray and pulled up a bench with Superintendent Cook and Capital Region BOCES Shared Food Service Director Patrick Kenneally. Both explaining every noodle and sesame string bean was free for all students—reminiscent of the pandemic-era federal policy that exposed a lot of unseen need.

“We didn’t really realize how many families were supported by our school programs, both breakfast and lunch,” says Superintendent Cook.

“To know kids are taking the financial burden of their families on themselves at seventh and eighth grade is heartbreaking,” Kenneally adds.

During the pandemic, federal legislation passed approving USDA waivers to reimburse the cost of breakfast and lunch for all students, eliminating income requirements. That policy expired in June 2022, with the summer food program expiring in September 2022.

In NYS, the Department of Education offers a Community Eligibility Provision allowing school districts in high-poverty areas to continue universal free lunch. Hartford is one such school district, and Superintendent Cook says he’s glad lunch at his school doesn’t need to be stuck behind a pay wall.

“Healthy kids can’t learn if they’re hungry, we know that, and while school lunch isn’t part of a district’s budget, districts do need to make them whole again if there is shortfall at the end of the year,” Cook explains. “Since we don’t have to worry about that–about losing money–we can provide unique options, like this Lunar New Year lunch, and bring new opportunities to our students.”

Now that the federal dollars have dried up, Kenneally is among those lobbying New York lawmakers to take just 0.1% of the 2024 state budget to make free lunch universal, permanently eliminating income requirements. BOCES estimates the 0.1% of the budget—totaling between $187-$200 million—could feed every child in the state and equal an average household savings of $140 per child, per family every month.

“Governor Hochul‘s State of the State, she mentioned making New York State more affordable, and the mental health crisis, and hungry kids in schools can’t be ignored as part of both of those situations,” Kenneally says.

He says many BOCES schools report their student debt is quickly climbing into the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars now that they’ve reverted back to the income-based system. He says the Healthy School Meals for All push hopes to level the playing field by eliminating the stigma of accepting help.

“You could focus on doing fun, themed meals like this Lunar New Year meal. You [wouldn’t be] stuck in your office writing student debt letters,” he says.