MANHATTAN — Why do more than twice as many elementary school kids eat school lunch than high school students?
It’s the not the quality of the meals, it’s the “poor kid” stigma that reaches its peak in high school, according to Community Food Advocates, a nonprofit that visited nearly 60 schools last year to get a taste of what’s happening in cafeterias.
The group believes the best way to fight the bad rap of school lunches is to make it free for all students, rather than just those who are low-income, which is why the group is gearing up to launch its “Lunch 4 Learning” campaign for universal free lunch this fall.
“As students get older and become more conscious and aware of stigma and income, many high school kids simply won't eat,” Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, said. “Part of the problem is the stigma of the [current lunch] program translates to the stigma of the food.”
More than 80 percent of elementary school children eat school lunch, according to the organization. That number drops to 67 percent by the time middle school rolls around. In high school, only 38 percent of students eat school lunch.
Making lunch free for everyone — rather than only those who qualify for it — will help remove some of the negative associations with school food, which has improved in recent years as the Department of Education has focused more on healthier options like whole grain pasta and organic yogurt.
“There are really nice salad bars now,” said Accles, who was surprised to see fresh, “non-wilty” greens on beds of ice when she visited schools.
The city would have to kick in some $20 million for the program, but — since school food programs are largely supported by the federal government — it would bring in an additional $59 million in federal and state funds, she explained.
Plus, expanding the program would actually lessen the bureaucratic burden on schools, she said, since schools would no longer need to collect family income applications.
Community Food Advocates estimates participation in school lunch would rise 25 percent if the meals were free for all students.
Since the Department of Education has offered free breakfast since 2003, participation has increased by 50 percent, according to a Community Food Advocates report.
Studies have shown that students who eat school breakfast regularly have better test scores, attendance and behavior, the report said. Studies have also shown that students who eat school lunch have more veggies, grains and milk and consume fewer sweetened beverages, cookies and salty snacks.
“Food and hunger is an access issue. It's also an educational outcomes issue,” Accles said. “None of us do anything well when we're hungry.”
Even if lunch were free, however, there may still be some barriers, Accles admitted.
The program wouldn’t matter much at high schools that allow students to leave campus for lunch, for instance.
In one school with such a policy, only 4 percent of students ate school lunch despite having 77 percent of its population low-income, the group found.
The look of cafeterias matter, too.
When the Richard R. Green High School was in a traditional school building on the Upper East Side and had an open campus lunch policy, no more than a quarter of students ate school lunch. But when it moved to an office building two years ago in Lower Manhattan with a fully air-conditioned cafeteria at the top of a grand staircase rising from the lobby, the number of school lunch eaters jumped to 43 percent, the study found.
Department of Education officials aren't biting on a free lunch program just yet.
“We review our universal school meals program and make adjustments,” a DOE spokeswoman said. “What the group advocates is an over simplification because there are federal rules regulating free lunch.”
At least on mayoral hopeful, William Thompson, supports the idea of a free lunch.
He planned to announce his vision for such a program Thursday, in response to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to increase the cost of meals by 25 cents.