MANHATTAN — The time for Mayor Bill de Blasio to approve universal free lunch for all New York City public students is now — especially since the bulk of the program’s costs are fronted by the federal government, and there are many unknowns about whether such policies might change under a Trump presidency, advocates say.
De Blasio pledged during his 2013 campaign to provide universal free lunch, but has failed to do so, much to the dismay of many parents, union leaders and elected officials supporting the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, which repeated its plea Wednesday.
“For a progressive mayor, this really has the potential to be hugely transformative. It can have a tremendous impact considering the number of students whose families are struggling financially,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, and leader of the Lunch 4 Learning campaign.
With a new federal administration soon taking over, she added, “it makes the urgency all the more urgent.”
Currently, all children enrolled in the city’s pre-K program receive free lunch as do all middle school students who attend standalone middle schools. (Those who attend K-8 schools do not get universal free lunch.) And all public school students receive free breakfast.
The Lunch 4 Learning campaign estimates an additional 47,000 New York City kids would get lunch through the program. Since school lunch is a federal entitlement program, with a meal-by-meal reimbursement, that would likely bring in roughly $28 million a year from the federal government. It would cost the city about $8.5 million on top of the $11.2 million it already spends on the middle school lunch program.
Many cities across the nation already have universal free lunch, including Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“We’re really behind here,” Accles said. “Basically, we need to get in the program and get it done. Once you’re in, it makes it harder to strip away. It’s all unknown at this point, but there are going to be a lot of things under attack.”
There are agricultural interests and food business interests that might make the universal lunch program appealing to the incoming administration, she noted.
“For us,” she added, “the most important things are children and families.”
Research has found that there’s often a “poor kid” stigma attached to school lunch unless it's universal — which results in needy students rejecting the free food, even when they might be hungry.
An analysis by Community Food Advocates of DOE data found more than 60 percent of students participate in school lunch in middle schools with Universal School Lunch versus 40 percent in those without.
It also found that 50 percent of high school students with Universal Free School Lunch ate versus 30 percent without and 80 percent of elementary students with Universal Free Lunch ate versus 70 percent without.
“The middle school program is a proven success,” Accles said. “If addressing income inequality and education equity are truly the mayor’s chief priorities, he must expand this program to all children, in all schools, now.”
Last school year, nearly 77 percent of the city's students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, according to DOE officials, who said they continue to review the possibility of expanding universal free lunch beyond middle school.
"We must ensure students have access to nutritious meals, and that hunger never serves as a hindrance to learning in the classroom and beyond," DOE spokeswoman Toya Holness said.