Now more than ever it is urgent that that Mayor de Blasio honor his campaign promise to implement Universal Free School Lunch in all New York City public schools. As a mayoral candidate in 2013, he was resolute that this program is “crucial,” proclaiming, “I think we’re missing an opportunity to use available federal funding to make school lunches free, and I think we have to end any stigma around school lunches and universalize it.” We are counting on him to stand by his word.
We are certain that the mayor continues to stand by the principle that food access is a good investment, and that food is as essential as books when it comes to learning. We know he, too, believes that income should not divide students in NYC’s public schools.
Teachers, public school parents, school administrators, cafeteria workers, and students alike, have told story after story of hungry children who eat their only meals at school; how kids who don’t qualify for free lunch, eat potato chips, or nothing at all, because their parents can’t afford the lunch fees; and how the kids who qualify for free lunch don’t eat it, to avoid the stigma and bullying associated with a “free-free,” a derisive term for free school lunch. The result is obvious and preventable–sleepy, distracted, agitated students.
We are driven by the indisputable fact that nutritious food positively impacts student health and academic performance, and that all young people in our public schools should have it, regardless of income.
New York City has provided Universal Free Breakfast to all public-school students since 2003, and free lunch in over 580 elementary, middle, and high schools for even longer. Federal and state reimbursements cover 92 percent of the total costs, and the city makes up the balance.
In schools where universal free lunch is provided, more kids eat. It is as simple as that. They eat the lunch because the school is sending them a clear signal that school lunch is an essential and integral part of the school day, and that there is no longer a stigma attached to this important meal. This is exactly what we want – to ensure that children are eating nutritious meals in school. In a city with so many families struggling to make ends meet, this has far-reaching consequences.
In September 2014, the mayor implemented Universal Free School Lunch in standalone middle schools, as part of the city’s focus on improving the educational environment. Based on an analysis by my organization, Community Food Advocates, of the Department of Education data, in 2016 school year over 60 percent of students participate in school lunch in middle schools with Universal Free School Lunch, versus 40 percent in those without. In the same analysis, we saw that 50 percent of high school students with Universal Free School Lunch ate versus 35 percent without, and 80 percent of elementary students with Universal Free School Lunch ate versus 70 percent without.
Implementing Universal Free School Lunch could be a transformative moment in the mayor’s efforts towards ending economic inequality. By increasing the NYC Department of Education School Lunch Program budget to approximately $20 million, $11.25 million of which has already been committed in 2015, every New York City public school student can have access to a meal during the day on equal terms.
During this post-election and holiday season, as the mayor tours the city reassuring New Yorkers that he will not back down from these progressive values, he must remember that come January, when he identifies his 2018 priorities for the city in the preliminary budget, his actions speak louder than his words.