Recently, I was joined by a consortium of over 120 of the city’s leading food advocacy, health, and parent organizations to announce a plan that will provide universal free lunch for all New York City public school students.
Today, over 75 percent of city public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch — an estimated 780,000 students – and many students from families just above the income threshold but still struggling.
Unfortunately, in part because of the poverty stigma associated with school lunch— and understandable fears of undocumented families filling out the significant required paperwork to qualify— an estimated 250,000 income-eligible city students do not participate in the school lunch program.
That’s a quarter-million children who are allowed to access free or reduced price lunch, but don’t do so largely because of the poverty stigma.
The problem gets worse as children get older and societal pressures increase: 81 percent of elementary school students eat school lunch, but that number drops to 61 percent by middle school, and 38 percent in high school.
We know that universal school lunch works because we already have it in select low-income schools in New York City. We simply want to expand that accessibility. Boston, Dallas, and Chicago already have similar free lunch policies, as do New York State cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Hempstead, and Poughkeepsie.
The simple fact is that every child must be guaranteed access to healthy food during the school day. We know that when children are hungry, they are less likely to be attentive in class, and they are less likely to get the most out of their education.
We have spoken with Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to secure funding for universal free lunch. In my opinion, the simplest option is a direct allocation in the mayor’s proposed budget.
The federal government pays the bulk of the costs associated with school lunch in New York City. For the 2011-2012 school year, the federal government paid $298,121,850 for school meals and the city made up the difference of $37,564,748.
If we provide every child with a free lunch in the City of New York it will only cost an additional $20 million. We will spend just $20 more per student each year. This increase will amount to less than 1/10th of a percent of the entire Department of Education budget, which is nearly $25 billion.
Universal free lunch doesn’t require legislative action or approval from Albany. Let’s work with the mayor, who can institute universal free lunch with a stroke of his pen, and help erase the stigma associated with poverty or immigration status for thousands of New York City children.
The health of our children and families depends on it.
Letitia James is the public advocate of New York City.