UPPER WEST SIDE — Middle-school students who attend schools attached to another elementary or high school are being unfairly blocked from accessing the city's "universal" free lunch program due to a bureaucratic loophole, frustrated parents said.
In September 2014, the city rolled out an expanded program offering free lunches to every middle schooler, and not just those who qualified financially, as a way of decreasing the stigma of older students receiving free lunches.
But under the pilot program, which costs the city $6.25 million annually, a "middle school student" is defined as someone attending a school that exclusively serves the sixth through eighth grades. That does not include students in those grades who happen to attend a school that also serves elementary or high school students, said parents who are working to change the policy.
For the 2014-'15 school year, only 46 percent of city schools serving middle schoolers were eligible for the universal free lunch program, according to Department of Education data. Out of 630 schools that served grades 6-8, only 289 schools were stand-alone middle schools, the data showed.
"We find this hard to believe that our city has adopted a policy that treats sixth-graders differently simply based on what type of public middle school they choose to attend," Christine DiPasquale, PTA co-president of Manhattan's West End Secondary School (WESS), wrote in an April 11 letter to the mayor along with co-president Eric Shuffler on behalf of their executive board.
At WESS — which opened in September with sixth-grade students but will add a new grade each year through the 12th grade — parents were surprised to discover that their students weren't eligible for the city program.
"If you're in a 6-12 school, you shouldn’t be penalized. If a child is hungry, they’re not going to be a good learner," DiPasquale said.
Students at WESS can still qualify for free lunches based on their income, but for the 2015-'16 school year, the income eligibility cutoff for free lunch was at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, according to the Department of Education.
By offering the program to everyone, there's more flexibility and less of a chance children will go hungry if their parents' income is slightly above the eligibility cutoff, DiPasquale said. Proponents of the universal program have also argued that it helps students whose parents fail to fill out the necessary income forms to qualify.
WESS aims to attract students from all over the district, which stretches from West 59th to 122nd streets, and from all levels of income, Principal Jessica Jenkins has said.
Parents are concerned that not offering students at WESS universal free lunch could harm the school's recruitment efforts as students seek out other schools that do offer the program.
"This decision is not equitable, it is harmful to our students and families and may serve as a disincentive for families to send their children to WESS," the letter to the mayor stated.
The Department of Education said it would continue to evaluate the current program.
“We must ensure students have access to nutritious meals, and that hunger never serves as a hindrance to learning in school," DOE spokeswoman Toya Holness said.
"Universal free lunch was expanded and now includes all 6-8 stand-alone middle schools and District 75 schools for students with special needs. We are committed to ensuring our students receive healthy meals in school, and will continue to monitor this program.”
Advocates are pushing again this year for the city's budget to include universal free lunch for all public school students, not just a portion of the city's middle schoolers. The main advocacy group behind the push, Community Food Advocates, estimates the expanded program would cost the city $20 million annually.
Only applying universal free lunch to stand-alone middle schools is part of a bigger problem, said Liz Accles, a member of the group.
"If you’re doing it with just the middle-school students, then it’s not universal," she said, adding that the group's goal is not only to include middle schoolers in K-8 or 6-12 schools, but for every student in all schools to have access to free lunch, regardless of income.
"The solution to the concern is not piecemealing it," she said.