All public school kids should get free lunch, Public Advocate Letitia James said Tuesday — even those whose families can afford to pay. About 530,000 low-income students are currently enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program. Another 250,000 city students are eligible but do not participate, James said. “There is a poverty stigma associated with school-provided lunch,” said James. “We have children standing on two separate lines to get food — those who are paying and those who are not. That is why we’re here to announce our plans for free lunch for every public school student, and to eliminate that stigma.”
Among families who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch but don’t participate, she said some parents may hesitate to fill out the paperwork because they are embarrassed, or they are unaware of the program. Others may be undocumented immigrants who are simply afraid to fill out any official paperwork. Families of four with an annual income below $30,615 are entitled to free lunch, while those whose family income is below $43,568 get reduced-price lunch. Children whose families receive food stamps or are on Medicaid or welfare automatically qualify for free meals.If another 250,000 students got free lunches, the city tab would rise from $37 million to $77 million. The funds would come out of the city Education Department’s $25 billion budget, James said. The bulk of the cost of free school meals is reimbursed by the federal government.James did not give a figure for the cost if all 1.1 million children in city public schools got free lunch.
She urged Mayor de Blasio to act as soon as possible — and not to wait until next school year. “The city must change the current system of how our children are fed in public schools,” she said. If New York did offer free lunch to all schoolkids, it would join other cities that already do so.
Dallas and Chicago offer every public school student free lunch regardless of family income. Boston also joined the program, called the community eligibility option, last year. The initiative was launched in 2010 as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act.
The mayor’s office did not say if or when the plan would be implemented, but Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she welcomes the idea.