Politics

Free Lunch: There IS Such a Thing

Universal free lunch in New York City middle schools is working, so why are there no plans to expand this vital program in this year’s city budget?

We know the facts: Well-fed children are more focused and do better academically. But it is estimated that nearly 250,000 income-eligible New York City students do not participate in free school lunch programs—with participation rates dipping below 40 percent by high school. And it’s not because they are not hungry, but because they are ashamed of being stigmatized for being poor.

That’s why, last year, I led the fight for universal free lunch for all New York City public school students, regardless of family income.

The final agreement launched a pilot program for universal free lunch in stand-alone public middle schools and the results are in: According to a report by Community Food Advocates, schools participating in the pilot program are seeing an 8 percent increase in the number of students now receiving free lunch.

That’s nearly 10,000 more students each day who are eating when they are hungry without having to worry about the stigma of standing in a separate line to get free lunch. But we still have more work to do.

Five cities in New York State already offer universal free lunch throughout their public school systems: Hempstead, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Poughkeepsie. It has also been implemented in Chicago and Boston—two of the country’s biggest cities.

New York City should be leading the national conversation on improving nutrition in public schools, but instead we are falling behind on this critical issue.

Making public education work better in the 21st century is about smart reform that moves beyond the test, and holistically develops our students and communities. It’s about helping children be ready to learn and grow into healthy, happy and productive members of society. 

Next year’s city budget will exceed $78 billion—and everyone wants a piece of the pie. However, few need a piece more than the hundreds of thousands of children who are hungry and struggling just to get through the school day. 

The Independent Budget Office has confirmed that bringing universal free lunch to every single public school student will only require an additional $20 million per year. While this may seem like a big number, it’s less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the DOE’s annual budget. Yet the mayor’s executive budget fails to expand the universal free lunch pilot program that has already demonstrated success.

I will continue to push for expanding universal free lunch, because we know that doing so is a common-sense investment with benefits that will ripple throughout New York City. Students will be better nourished and ready for the day. Working families will have more flexibility to make ends meet. And schools will be able to direct more time and resources toward educational enrichment, instead of time-consuming administrative duties necessary to process constant paperwork in the current free lunch program.

The City Council has rightfully included universal free lunch in their budget. Now the mayor must do the same.

Together, we can build a city where children are healthier, schools are more successful and smart progressive policies uplift all.

 

Letitia James is the public advocate for New York City.

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