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High food costs force more Syracuse area families to rely on food assistance programs

A little girl eats chips at the SCSD summer meal program kick-off in Burnet Park July 8, 2024.
Scott Willis
A little girl eats chips at the SCSD summer meal program kick-off in Burnet Park July 8, 2024.

This week’s launch of the Syracuse City School District’s summer meal program highlights the larger and growing issue of food insecurity.  The increasing cost of food is adding to the struggles for many families. 

Thousands of Syracuse children receive up to two meals per day at school, at no cost. But when summer comes, that cost shifts back to families that may already be struggling to house and feed one or more children. SCSD Director of Food Nutrition Service Rachel Viens says households are feeling the pinch.

“Food costs have gone through the roof and wages have not kept up, so being able to have this particular burden of summer food service taken off a family's plate literally helps with their financial issues.”

Viens says they expect to serve up to 6,000 children this summer at more than three dozen meal sites. Food Bank of Central New York Executive Director Karen Belcher says food insecurity joins a list of concerns many families are facing.

“There's the increases in everything from childcare to food to fuel to transportation to housing," Belcher said. "That's a key piece right now too. The housing situation that's feeding into the food insecurity piece as well.”

 Data from Zillow and Apartment Advisor show that the Syracuse area had some of the biggest rent increases in the nation this year. And, the cost of buying a home has become prohibitive due to limited inventory, high selling prices, and high interest rates. Belcher says the number of backpack meals they provide during the school year is another indicator of the need.

"When we started it, we were maybe at 700 a week and then we got to 900," Belcher said. "Now we're at 1,200 a week and that need is increasing even this next school year. It's why we're here. It's how can we help provide access, meet people where they're at versus making them jump through hoops to get nutritious food so that they can feed their families.” 

Belcher says they can feed families that might not have a stove, microwave, or even a refrigerator.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at