Universal free and healthy lunch in the New York City public schools is just a word away. With Mayor de Blasio's Executive budget due in early May 2014, he has the opportunity (with no need for permission from either the State or Federal governments) to make all New York City public school students eligible for free and healthy school lunch with an additional investment of $20 million in NYC funds, or $20/student per year.
Since school lunch costs are primarily paid for by the federal and state governments, this would bring an additional $59 million in federal and state funds into NYC.
To put it in context, New York City would spend $20 million (.0001 percent of the $24 billion NYC Department of Education budget) and receive $59 million. And feed hundreds of thousands of our students healthful lunch.
As it is now, students that are just above an annual family income of $36,000 are not eligible for free lunch. Many of those children are in families who are struggling financially. As student at Bushwick High School for Social Justice, Benia Darius, said in her testimony before the NYC Council Education Committee:
"We need students to focus on school not on what they're going to eat. We need to give those students an opportunity to learn. Just because a household is making more than $36k per year, that does not mean that they should be disqualified from free lunch. $1.75 is not easy to come by. My peers should not go on the school line ashamed or afraid to be humiliated."
Seventy-five percent of NYC students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, but a third of the children don't participate, primarily because of the poverty stigma and bullying that results. Universal free and healthy lunch will eliminate the poverty stigma, helping kids to opt for the school lunch rather than foregoing the meal entirely or eating processed unhealthy snack foods as they do now. Data from SchoolFood, NYC by the Dept. of Education, shows that only 38 percentof eligible high school students choose the lunch served at school, primarily due to the fact that they are fearful of bullying and ridicule.
To illustrate the strength of the stigma, It is not uncommon for high school students to line up to pay $1 for French fries from the "a la cart" line rather than opt for the exact same fries in the school lunch line that are available for free, or as part of a complete lunch (five items) costing $1.75.
Marc Vidal, a high school student said, "I rarely eat school lunch. In my school there are students that get teased and labeled. This teasing goes on because they categorize you as poor, and all of the negative assumptions that come with that. This is because to qualify for the free food your family's income must be below $36,000 a year."
Free and healthy school lunch will eliminate the poverty stigma of " being 'caught' eating the free-free" by breaking the link between family income and free school lunch. It will also eliminate the artificially low federal income cut-off and alleviate a number of other ills facing the school lunch system in New York City, including an inordinate amount of bureaucratic paperwork.
It is a first step, as there is much more work to be done. However, it is, as Agnes Molnar said, "A great idea whose time has come."
President Truman said, when he signed the National School Lunch Program legislation on June 4, 1946 that, "no nation is any healthier than its children or more prosperous than its farmers." How can we expect to have a healthy nation if we don't offer food to children without shame?
Please join Lunch 4 Learning and ensure that more children eat healthy school meals by making them free.
If you have any questions about L4L or universal free and healthy lunch, please go to http://www.lunch4learningnyc.org/