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Free Lunch Comes to All NYC Public Schools

By Amy Zimmer | September 6, 2017 6:32pm
 A crowded lunch room at P.S. 276 in Battery Park City.
A crowded lunch room at P.S. 276 in Battery Park City.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

FAR WEST SIDE — All of the city’s roughly 1.1 million students heading back to public schools Thursday will have access to free school lunch this year, city officials announced Wednesday.

For years, hunger advocates have been urging the city to implement universal school lunch, and Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged during his mayoral campaign four years ago that he supported free lunch for all.

Making the meals free for all students, rather than just those who are low-income, helps break down the “poor kid” stigma and negative associations attached to school food, advocates believe. It will also help reduce the shame and bullying some kids experience when they are identified as getting free or reduced lunch, or when they can’t cover the costs of the meals, many said.

 Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina flanked by elected officials and advocates, announcing universal free lunch at P.S. 51 on the Far West Side.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina flanked by elected officials and advocates, announcing universal free lunch at P.S. 51 on the Far West Side.
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DNAInfo/Amy Zimmer

“There is now such things as a free lunch at New York City public schools,” said City Councilman Ben Kallos, who recalled how he wanted to hide his free lunch status from his friends when growing up on the Upper East Side.

“I had to chose between friends and food,” he said. “I told friends I wasn’t hungry — that’s because I was starving.”

Liz Accles — executive director of Community Food Advocates, which spearheaded the Lunch 4 Learning campaign of parents and union workers pushing for universal lunch — called the move “enormous” in terms of equity, given the notion of public school means that all kids are supposed to receive the same services.

“We’re erasing all the terrible history of the school food program not only in New York City, but nationally, that has divided children by income,” she said. “We’re done with that. This is a new day.”

Her group will now focus on the implementation of the program, to ensure that families are taking advantage of it.

The city has offered free breakfast since 2003 and rolled out free lunch to standalone middle schools in 2014. Middle schools saw participation in the lunch program increase by 6 percent under the program, DOE officials said.

Roughly 75 percent of the city’s students qualified for free lunch under federal guidelines. But because of problems with data collection from families, the city had previously been unable to qualify for the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision, allowing districts to provide meals to all students free of charge, officials said.

Last year, roughly 30 percent of city students attended a school providing free lunch for all, DOE officials said.

In June, the City Council extended the existing free lunch program in the budget, which was expected to cover an additional 250,000 students, DOE officials said.

But now, free lunch will reach roughly 200,000 more students than that — and at no cost to the city, since the federal government will subsidize the food.

The move to cover all students was made possible after the state Education Department implemented a new data-matching engine demonstrating that the city qualified for the highest level of school food reimbursement from the federal government.

That new data program streamlined the process of identifying eligible families who qualify for other government assistance like Medicaid and food stamps, helping the city qualify for additional federal and state funding for the school meals.

Oddette Manzano, a mom to a fourth-grader and a kindergartner at P.S. 51 on Manhattan's West Side, attended Wednesday's press conference at the school to announce the initiative.

She said that when all kids had access to the food — P.S. 51 already offers universal free lunch — it felt more like “one big happy community.”

But when her older children moved on to middle school and then high school, before free lunch was universal, the students felt singled out for accepting free lunch, the mom said.

“It’s like we’re low-income, poor children,” she said. “Now they won’t feel any different than anyone else.”

The program will also save Manzano money, since her kids previously wanted to go out and buy lunch because they felt embarrassed eating free lunch.

“It makes a difference to my pocket,” she said. “Now they can stay inside with their friends.”

Roughly two-thirds of families qualified for free lunch by earning at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $34,911 for a family of three. However, more than 110,000 city families that earned between 185 percent to 275 percent of the federal poverty level — between $35,000 and $52,000 for a family of three — still had to pay the full price in the past.

Many struggled, and when their families accrued lunch bills, students had to rely on the kindness of teachers or lunch workers since schools are not allowed to let children go hungry.

But that informal policy only placed more of a burden on children to identify themselves as needy, advocates said.

Those with outstanding bills from last year will receive refunds, school officials said.

At full price, students had been paying $1.75 for the meals, which were already subsidized to bring down the roughly $3.32 cost per meal.

Families can now save, on average, $300 a year on school lunch, said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“Equity goes two ways,” she added. “Equity means all children should have the same services no matter where you are on the economic ladder.”

For those families who can afford the meals, Fariña hoped they would consider helping out their schools.

“How about giving some of that money back to your school, to your local PTA?” she said.

City schools have been striving to improve the quality of the food, increasingly sourcing from local farms, using hormone-free chicken and expanding salad bars in cafeterias. Schools will continue to use whole grains despite loosening guidelines from the Trump administration, DOE officials noted.