Education on LI: Growing number of students in need

In the final weeks of 2020, Congress passed a spending bill which included $13 billion for nutrition assistance programs that could aid the increasing number of food-insecure Americans during the pandemic.

On Long Island, data shows food insecurity increased during COVID-19. Newsday reported in October there are now potentially 350,000 to 400,000 Long Islanders relying on food pantries, which is 35% to 54% more than in 2018.

As part of the “Education on LI” series, nextLI is using a pre-COVID snapshot of students in public schools participating in economic assistance programs – from 2004 to 2016 – to see what trends we might learn from it.

The overall takeaway: There are more students in Long Island public schools receiving aid from federal economic assistance meal programs than before.

Snapshot: 2004 vs. 2016

The Department of Agriculture defines students eligible for reduced and free lunch programs as those whose parents’ income levels are either at or below 130 percent, or 130 percent to 180 percent of the federal poverty level.

In other words, based on current income thresholds for federal poverty levels, a family of four on Long Island would qualify for reduced lunch if they made less than $47,000 annually, and would qualify for free lunch if they made less than $34,000 annually.

That stands in stark contrast to LI’s median household income of $105,000. For more details on income thresholds for the National School Lunch program, click here.

Of the 471,402 students who were enrolled in public schools in 2004, 17.4% participated in economic assistance meal programs.

LI public school enrollment makeup (2004)

LI public school enrollment makeup (2016)

From 2004, the population of students in economic assistance programs skyrocketed to 141,683 in 2016 –– a 73% spike. The large spike in students receiving aid is likely due to a policy change. A 2010 New York law mandated that when 40% of a schools’ population qualified for meal assistance, the school would stop charging anyone for meals – leading to a spike in free and reduced lunch.

Although the total number of enrolled students has declined over 12 years, the student population with reduced and free lunch had nearly doubled in 2016.

There are also more students receiving free lunch than before. In 2016, free lunch recipients made up 28.8% of public school enrollment compared to 12.6% in 2004, which outnumbers the portion of reduced lunch recipients by more than seven times.

Enrollment growth, indexed to 2004

The rate of growth also shows a significant climb since 2008 in the population of students with free lunch meals, and a minor decline in the population of students with reduced lunch meals.

Wait, how did you get those numbers?

We use county- and district-level public school data from New York State’s department of Education database, and county- and school-level non-public school data from the state’s Information and Reporting Services archived database over the time period 2004 to 2016 (also provided by the state’s Department of Education). Our analysis uses the most recent and available data in NYSED’s database.

nextLI’s snapshot defines total enrollment as K-12 student enrollment, and does not include homeschooled Long Islanders in the analysis.