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A couple of local school districts this week received a series of grants to help combat food insecurity, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic and inflation that officials fear will worsen if a program providing all students with free meals ends in the coming days.

The Schenectady City School District is set to build food pantries at four of its schools after receiving a $9,930 grant from No Kid Hungry, a non-profit group working to end child hunger in the United States.

The district was one of 39 organizations, including school districts and non-profits, across the state that received a total of $740,000 in grants from No Kid Hungry to support daily programs and purchase kitchen equipment and food.

Mohonasen Central School received a $15,000 No Kid Hungry grant and a $10,000 separate grant from the Wright Family Foundation to support its MohonCARES program, which provides food, clothing, and toiletries to district schoolchildren.

“We are proud to partner with and support these school districts and organizations to ensure that all children in New York strive to succeed,” Rachel Sabella, director of New Kid Hungry New York, said in a press release. “As we continue to see prices rise for all essentials, we must rush to get more help so that families don’t face hunger at home.”

In Schenectady, the district plans to build storage rooms at Yeats, Pleasant Valley, and Keene elementary schools, as well as Schenectady High School. The district already operates a pantry at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School through a partnership with Schenectady Community Ministries.

Karen Corona, a spokesperson for the district, said the schools were selected based on need, and the district plans to operate pantries that will initially be stocked with non-perishable food, similar to how it operates the existing pantry at King Elementary. The goal is to eventually store perishable foods.

The district plans to continue discussions about pantries later this summer, but the Crown noted that the pantries are part of the district’s new community school initiative, which aims to turn schools into community centers through partnerships with communities.

The scholarships are being offered at a time of soaring inflation that is straining families and just days before a program that has provided millions of students across the country with free school lunches and breakfasts expires on June 30.

Food prices have surged over the past year, rising 9.4% between April 2021 and April 2022, according to the USDA. Gas prices also rose last year from $3.13 a gallon state average to $4.98, according to the AAA.

Schenectady schools participate in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with the lowest poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

A total of 77% of the district’s 9,080 students were considered economically disadvantaged in the 2020-21 school year, the equivalent of 6,959 students, according to the State Department of Education.

But at Mohonasen Schools, Superintendent Shannon Shine said 46% of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals during the 2019-20 school year, prior to the introduction of the universal free lunch and breakfast program.

A universal program approved by Congress in response to the pandemic allows the USDA to exempt students from free meals regardless of family income.

Legislation to renew the program for the 2022-23 academic year was approved by the US House of Representatives on Thursday, but is still awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Prior to the universal program, only students from families with incomes below 130% of the poverty line were eligible for a free lunch equivalent to $34,450 for a family of four. Those whose family earned up to 185% of the federal poverty level or an annual income of $49,025 for a family of four were eligible for discounted lunch prices.

Shine said the district does not have data on the number of students who would be eligible for free or reduced lunches if the universal program is not renewed, but he noted that nearly half of the district’s more than 800 students come from low-income backgrounds. families.

In the 2020-21 school year, 42% of the district’s students, equivalent to 351 students, were considered economically disadvantaged, according to government data.

Meanwhile, according to the latest data provided by the district, the MohonCARES program, which was created to provide essential supplies to the district’s students, had 2,500 attendance in the high school alone in the 2018-19 school year.

The program, which is funded entirely by donations and grants, provides students with free clothing and toiletries, as well as a weekend backpack program at each of the district’s four schools. Bradt Elementary School and Mohonasen High School also have a food pantry.

The District plans to significantly support the program with a $25,000 grant this week, including the purchase and installation of an air conditioner for the school pantry, which operates during the summer months.

Plans also call for new food pantry cabinets and racks and chest freezers for all school buildings, as well as new refrigerators for Bradt Elementary School, Pinewood Middle School and Draper Middle School. The district also plans to purchase carts for all buildings, reusable aluminum water bottles, and a washer and dryer.

Shine said he expects the need for the program to increase if the universal free food program is not reintroduced.

“We definitely anticipate this increase in demand,” he said in an email. “The Universal Free Meal Program has been a fantastic program and should be continued.”

Contact Chad Arnold at 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.

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