School Lunch Committee: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ's)
This list of frequently asked questions has been compiled for the Croton community’s information. Click each question to view information.
How has the school district performed its research?
A committee was formed in January 2017 to develop recommendations for school lunch programming in the school district. The committee met with or had discussions with representatives of the New York State Education Department’s Child Nutrition Program, and also with experts in developing and operating school lunch programs. In March 2017, a survey was administered to the students at the high school to learn their preferences, and in May-June 2017 conducted a community-wide survey. The committee has since presented its findings to the district administration and Board of Education, and currently serves in an advisory committee as the administration and Board consider options for the future of a lunch program.
How was the committee formed?
In the fall of 2016, it came to the attention of high school administrators and student members of the Student Faculty Congress that some of our high school students were often not eating lunch because their families were unable to provide them. This was brought to the attention of the Board of Education which, on December 1, 2016, held a work session at which multiple constituents were represented in order to discuss the issue and how the district might approach it. Following that discussion, many of the participants formed a committee to begin exploring the issue more fully.
In order to seek input from a broad cross-section of the community, participants were sought from several constituencies. The committee has had representation from the PTAs at each of the three schools (including the high school PTSA), the high school Student Faculty Congress, the Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger, the Croton-Cortlandt Food Pantry, parents, administration from each of the three schools, the district’s school business official, and a representative of the Board of Education. Participation and input has been sought from many of Croton’s local food businesses as well.
Is the committee focused only on the high school, or all three schools?
Although the conversations began due to needs identified at the high school, it became clear during the Board of Education work session and the early discussions among the committee that all three schools should be addressed. For example, although the PTAs at CET and (until recently) PVC operate lunch programs at those two schools, those programs are heavily reliant on volunteers and may be difficult to sustain from year to year.
What lunch options are currently available at the three schools?
Currently, the school district sells individual milk cartons to students, generally at its cost, at all three schools. In addition, district-operated vending machines are available at PVC and CHHS which sell various snack and beverage items.
At CET Elementary School, the CET PTA operates a program under which all students may purchase lunch three days a week (chicken fingers, Mexican, or pizza depending on the day). The CET PTA purchases the lunch items from selected Croton businesses then sells them to the students at a profit, with those profits used to fund enrichment programs for CET students. The program relies on approximately 100 hours of volunteer time each week. The CET PTA Cares program raises funds from the community and covers the cost of five days of lunches for CET’s neediest students (see below of additional explanation).
At PVC Middle School, until February 16, 2018, the PVC PTA operated a program under which all students could purchase lunch four days a week (Mexican, Chinese, pasta, pizza, or pre-made sandwiches). As with CET, the PVC PTA purchased the lunch items from selected Croton businesses then sold them to the students at a profit, with those profits used to fund enrichment programs for PVC students. However, effective February 16, 2018, the PVC PTA discontinued their program. Vending machines with snack and beverage items are still available at PVC, as is a microwave for student use at school for those who bring lunch items from home. The district is actively searching for a short-term replacement for the PVC PTA lunch program that would be available to all students beginning as soon as March 2018, and lasting until a decision is reached and implemented for a longer-term program.
Beginning in the fall of 2017, the district began a five-day lunch program at CHHS. Aramark was contracted to manage the food service, and a hot lunch line was installed; the program has contracts and daily arrangements with area vendors, Cisco, and Rockland bakery to provide breakfast items, a hot lunch option, daily sandwiches, and other grab-and-go items. The program serves all students, and provides a free lunch to qualified students.
Prior to the introduction of the lunch program in Fall 2017 at Croton-Harmon High School, on most days no lunch was sold in school. Occasionally, certain student clubs arranged lunch food sales as fundraisers. CHHS has an “open campus,” meaning that students at all grade levels (9-12) are permitted to leave school during lunch and free periods. The spring 2017 survey showed that approximately 74% of CHHS students left school during lunch period at least 2 days per week, with approximately 65% of those students purchasing lunch from local businesses. We don’t have updated data on how many students are currently leaving campus. Whether students purchase lunch or bring it from home, there is seating space in the high school for students to sit and eat. However, the available space is sometimes not sufficient to fit all students, so some stay out to eat or use common spaces in the school. In the cafeteria space, there are microwaves available for student use.
Does the school district have a large number of students who cannot afford lunch?
There are two ways in which a school district will be aware whether a student is eligible for free or reduced milk and lunch. First is through “direct certification,” under which New York State provides a list to district administration of the students whose families receive certain types of public assistance (e.g. food stamps, Medicaid). The second way for a student to qualify is through application directly with the school district, since not all families who meet the income qualifications for free or reduced milk and lunch are also receiving other public assistance. At CET and PVC, students are currently not highly incentivized to submit applications to the district since neither school has a district-run lunch program. At those two schools, approximately 7.7% of the student population is currently eligible, primarily through direct certification. Since the lunch program began at CHHS, the number of eligible CHHS students has increased from its pre-program level of approximately 5% (also primarily through direct certification) to its current level of approximately 9.5%. Based on the committee’s research and the experience so far at CHHS, it is estimated that closer to 10% of CET and PVC students would apply for and receive financial assistance if school-provided lunch was made available.
What lunch programs are available for students in families with financial needs?
At all three schools, the district sells individual milk cartons to students, and students who are eligible for free and reduced price lunch are able to receive free milk. This is funded through federal reimbursements.
At CET, the CET PTA created a separate program called CET PTA Cares under which families who are purchasing the PTA lunches may choose to make an additional donation to allow the CET PTA to provide free lunch to students in need. Those students who benefit from this program generally receive the provided lunch, on the days it is offered, and on days lunch is not offered may receive pre-made sandwiches. Through the generosity of donors, the CET PTA has been able to provide free lunch to the neediest of students at CET. However, the program is not large enough to serve all CET students who would be eligible for free and reduced price lunch.
At PVC, for the duration of its program, the PVC PTA had a separate fund for its Lunch Scholarship Program. Funds were not used from its general account, but rather had been donated by the Croton Lions Club, Run Against Hunger, and the PVC community. For the four days a week when lunch was offered by the PVC PTA, students with financial needs received the same lunch as the other students at no charge. On Fridays PVC PTA leadership personally made bag lunches for those students, and that lunch usually consisted of a turkey sandwich, a piece of fruit and a bag of pretzels/chips. Since the discontinuation of the PVC PTA lunch program, the Croton-Cortlandt Food Pantry with funding from the Run Against Hunger organization have quickly and generously implemented an interim program to provide lunch for needy students five days a week, until a more long-term solution can be developed by the district. The items being provided are generally shelf-safe foods and a small amount of refrigerated items (cheese, yogurt, etc).
As noted above, in the fall of 2016, it became clear that some CHHS students with financial needs were not eating lunch at all, or were eating very little. Quick action was taken by both high school administration and the Student Faculty Congress to find a solution. As a result of their efforts, the Croton-Cortlandt Food Pantry, through a generous donation from the Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger, was able to provide nutritious meals to a small group of these students. The grant funding lasted only until the end of the 2016/17 school year. By the fall of 2017, the new CHHS program was put into place.
Every effort is made to preserve the privacy of students with financial needs who currently benefit from these programs. The committee and the district are committed to treating every child with dignity and respect.
What are the different ways to cover the cost of lunch provided to eligible students?
The committee has identified four possible ways to achieve this:
- Private donations. This is how the needs of the neediest students are being met currently. At CET and PVC, these donations are sought separately from the costs of the program from the families who purchase lunches. At CHHS, temporary funding was received from the Harry Chapin Run Against Hunger, which raises funds from private donors and at fundraising events. However, this was not a sustainable source of long term funding.
- Federal aid dollars. Reimbursements of approximately $2.80 per lunch are available to districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Participation in the program requires compliance with federal nutritional requirements as well as additional program administration costs. Based on advice it has received from various experts, the committee believes that for a district such as Croton-Harmon with a low percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, the reimbursements would not be worth shouldering those additional burdens and limitations. The district would, of course, be free to set its own nutritional requirements for a “nonparticipating” lunch program.
- Profits from paid lunches. If a school district operates a lunch program which is broadly available to students but does not participate in the NSLP, it may still provide free and reduced price lunch to students who are eligible and would be free from the restrictions that apply in the NSLP. New York State Education Department guidelines require that a school district’s school lunch fund betargeted to operate at a breakeven though it is permitted to subsidize the program with taxpayer funds if such a subsidy is included in the budget approved by the voters. The committee estimates that this method would increase the price of paid lunches by approximately $0.25 each.
- District budget, within legal constraints. Since the district budget is funded with taxpayer dollars, it cannot simply allocate funding in its budget for the identified purpose of providing lunch only to children who can’t afford one. However, school districts are permitted to cover certain losses of district-wide or school-wide lunch programs with transfers from their general budget, provided that such transfer is part of the voter-approved budget. The committee estimates that this method would increase property taxes for the average Croton homeowner by approximately $11/year.
What might a lunch program look like? Where might the food come from?
The committee researched a multitude of options for food service that could work in Croton. Some of those options include purchasing lunches prepared in the kitchens of a neighboring school district, having lunches delivered from organizations that specialize in nutritious school lunches, sourcing lunches from Croton businesses, building kitchen facilities within the district, or some combination of any of these. The community survey sought opinions about priorities in evaluating these solutions. The district’s Board of Education and administration are considering the various options as they consider the future of the district’s lunch program.
Will the high school campus be closed if lunch is offered?
First, some background. At Croton-Harmon, all students in grades 9 through 12 are permitted to leave the high school grounds during lunch periods. When the committee surveyed the high school students about their opinions around a potential school lunch program, 82% favored maintaining the open campus environment. Croton students view this as something that makes Croton unique, gives them a greater sense of independence, allows them to support local food service businesses, and helps alleviate cafeteria space issues in the school. Tardiness and misconduct, while they do occur, have not been significant issues with students who leave campus.
Districts who close their campus may do so for security reasons, because of a lack of food service establishments nearby, or if a previously open campus led to high levels of tardiness, truancy, or misconduct. If a district with an open campus operates a lunch program and participation in the program is low, the district may determine it needs to fully or partially close its campus in order to increase participation and thereby ensure the lunch program’s viability. For example, some schools allow high school juniors and seniors to leave campus but require freshmen and sophomores to stay in the school. Others make the ability to leave campus a privilege, which can be earned or retained based on appropriate school attendance, behavior, or academic performance.
Districts may have an open campus as a means to develop maturity and independence in students, and to provide a sense of freedom. In Croton-Harmon’s case, the lack of a school lunch program, the lack of sufficient eating space in the school, and the proximity of local food service businesses to the high school have all contributed to the decision to have an open campus. The school lunch committee, district administration, and the Board of Education all support maintaining the open campus concept at this time.
Why didn’t the district already have a lunch program?
Prior to October 2017, none of the Croton-Harmon schools had district-run lunch programs for at least the previous 25-30 years.
In 2000, the district conducted a referendum for a bond to provide funding for renovations and additions to each of its school buildings to address rising enrollment and educational needs, as well as a kitchen facility at Croton Harmon High School, with food service to be "satellited" to the other schools. However, projects approved in that referendum were delayed for almost three years because of a legal challenge, and by the time the legal proceedings ended and the project could be put out to bid, the cost of construction had risen so much that the district could not construct the kitchens with the amount of money that the voters had approved for the bond.
Thereafter, in 2008, the school board placed before the voters two bond referenda for building projects, one of which would allow for the construction and installation of kitchen facilities at each of the three schools and the other which would fund certain other building projects including science labs. However, voters rejected both referenda. The district used other means to fund some of those projects, such as the science labs, but abandoned the kitchen facilities.
What costs would be borne by taxpayers if a school lunch program is implemented?
This depends a lot on the type of program that is eventually implemented. Potential costs could include the construction of additional eating or kitchen space, the purchase of serving and warming equipment, electrical service upgrades, and other potential infrastructure improvements. The Board of Education is in the process of making these decisions. Furthermore, the committee has learned that the District is aware of the impact the new program will have on fundraising for enrichment programs and is looking at possible re-appropriations within its budget.