Last week, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James announced a plan to give all students in the city’s public schools free lunches, regardless of need, Gothamist reports.
Her office estimates that 250,000 students are eligible for the program but aren’t participating, likely because of the bureaucracy of enrolling as well as the stigma associated with receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Making the meals available to all lifts the hurdles of stigma and paperwork.
“Every child should be guaranteed access to healthy food during the school day,” James said at a press conference. “I have spoken with the [Bill de Blasio] administration regarding the need to explore resources that can pay for universal free lunch. Most significantly, we need to unlink school food to family income to make this program accessible to children citywide.”
It would cost the city $20 million to implement her plan, but the cost of the free lunches would be reimbursed by the federal government. That’s thanks to the expansion of a program from the Department of Agriculture that gives all students free breakfast and lunch, regardless of income, in high-poverty areas. It originally targeted 11 states, but as of July, it will be expanded to 22,000 schools and reach 9 million children.
New York wouldn’t be the first major city to offer all students a free meal at school. Boston is serving free breakfast and lunch to all students this year to cut down on parents’ paperwork and to help those who had fallen just outside the income eligibility limits. Dallas is now doing the same and anticipates saving money from the change thanks to fewer costs associated with processing the paperwork. Chicago is also offering all students free lunch.
But in those districts that haven’t joined in, the stigma around receiving these meals is intense. Some schools have thrown out students’ reduced-price meals when their balances ran low, and others have stamped the hands of those who couldn’t afford lunch.
This is part of what keeps needy students from getting meals. While the number of students across the country receiving free breakfast has increased by about 19 percent since 2009, just half of eligible students receive it. The need is great: three-quarters of the country’s teachers say they have students who regularly show up hungry, while more than one in five children lack steady access to food. And the impact of hunger is also great: it has a big impact on their cognitive and social development and also makes them far more susceptible to mental illness.