MANHATTAN — Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña this week ordered principals to ensure that all elementary and middle school students in need who ask for free lunch be provided a meal — in what hunger advocates dismissed as a "out-of-touch" reiteration of existing school policies that fail students who are too ashamed to speak up.
Farina's memo to principals, which was issued on Tuesday as part of her weekly newsletter to school leaders, reiterates the city's more than a decade-long policy that relies on kids coming forward to initiate free lunches, rather than supporting a push to make school lunch free for all students.
“Please remind your staff that like in past years, regardless of meal-eligibility status, you should not deny meals to any students in grades K–8,” Fariña wrote. “Note that this protocol has been in place for over 10 years and the DOE is dedicated to ensuring that students have access to a healthy meal during the school day.”
She issued the reminder at the urging of City Council members after she mentioned the longstanding policy during a hearing this week.
Advocates say Fariña’s advice will do little to change the complicated factors leading hungry kids to skip school lunch — which studies have found has serious consequences on their ability to concentrate and learn.
“The chancellor is completely out of touch here,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, which is leading the Lunch 4 Learning campaign for universal free lunch.
“She’s missing the social dynamics that happen in the cafeteria and how kids tease each other,” Accles said. “She’s missing the point that children feel ashamed and embarrassed, both those who are eligible for free lunch and those whose parents can’t afford the fees and have a lunch bill.”
To ask young children to identify themselves as not being able to pay for school lunch puts them in a difficult spot, Accles said.
“She’s asking them to get up and speak or is putting it on the lunch worker or teacher to identify them,” Accles said. “This isn’t public policy. It codifies children having to identify themselves by income.”
Such an informal system also may mean that if a caring teacher or lunch worker is absent, a child who relies on those workers may go hungry that day.
It was also “absurd,” Accles added, that the policy only applied for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
School food suffers from a “poor kid” stigma, advocates say, since it’s only free for low-income students, and that forces many kids who need the food to shun it, especially as they get to middle and high school, advocates believe.
Moreover, there are many students from moderately low-income families who don’t qualify for free lunch but still struggle to afford school food, according to a recent analysis from the Citizens’ Committee for Children.
To qualify for free lunch, your household’s income must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $34,911 for a family of three.
While nearly 80 percent of students are eligible to receive free lunch, more than 110,000 students’ families earn between 185 percent to 275 percent of the federal poverty level — between $35,000-$52,000 for a family of three — and therefore have to shell out the $1.75 each day for lunch, the report found.
During his mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio promised to support universal free lunch, which has broad backing from many City Council members and other elected officials.
The federal government covers most of the bill for school food, and advocates project that making school lunch free for all would bring in $59 million more in federal funding while costing the city about $20 million more a year, or $20 a year for each participating student.
The de Blasio administration has made strides in expanding access to school food, implementing universal free lunch to all standalone middle schools and all universal pre-K programs. It also expanded the “breakfast in the classroom program, with over 400 schools currently participating and all buildings housing only elementary schools to be added to the program by the end of fiscal year 2018.
"Mayor de Blasio is dedicated to ensuring students have access to nutritious meals,” said Freddi Goldstein, mayoral spokeswoman. “Nearly 80 percent of students citywide are able to receive free lunch. We are reviewing the possibility of expanding it to even more schools and are doing our due diligence to make sure resources are used wisely.”