MANHATTAN — Rachael Ray wants your help to stop New York City’s children from going hungry.
The TV show host and author announced Wednesday the official launch of a petition urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to make good on his 2013 campaign promise and expand universal free lunch to the city’s 1.1 million public school students.
The celebrity’s efforts — done in conjunction with the Lunch 4 Learning campaign — has already garnered more than 26,000 signatures.
"All children should have access to a nutritious hot meal at lunch, end of story,” Ray said. “Kids with empty bellies can't learn."
Ray, an advocate for child nutrition, noted in the petition that nearly 90,000 of the city’s students are homeless and suffer from the “double stigma” of poverty and homelessness.
“They are hungry, embarrassed that they might be humiliated by their classmates and they don’t have the money to buy food,” Ray wrote in the petition. “Instead of focusing on learning, children are often distracted and worried about where their next meal may come from and how to pay for it. This is heartbreaking, and I know we can do better.”
She noted that de Blasio promised during his mayoral campaign to make free lunch universal.
Currently, the city offers “universal” free lunch to middle school students — but only to those who attend schools that exclusively serve sixth through eighth graders. It excludes roughly 54 percent of the middle school students who attend schools that also serve elementary or high school students.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña told City Council members at a recent budget hearing that when addressing peer pressure issues surrounding free lunch for middle schoolers, the Department of Education also wanted to target the cafeteria environment — and it was easier to start with renovating the standalone middle schools.
“With the standalone middle schools,” she said, “we have already done a big job.”
Community Food Advocates, the main advocacy group behind the push for universal lunch, has argued that the current program discourages those eligible for low-income free lunch from accepting it when their peers see it as a sign of poverty.
The group estimates the expanded program would cost the city an additional $8.75 million annually, bringing the city's total cost of universal free lunch to $20 million.
Since school food programs are largely supported by the federal government, the expanded program would bring in an additional $24 million in federal and state funds, bringing their total to about $60 million, advocates have said.
Several City Council members asked the chancellor when free lunch will be a reality for all students.
“I want to wake up in a city where every kid has the opportunity for free lunch,” Upper East Side Councilman Ben Kallos said at the budget hearing.
“I’m not saying ‘No,’” Fariña said. “It’s all a matter of priorities. We have to take it one step at a time.”