Citing a stigma that often causes poor students to go hungry rather than take advantage of programs that offer them free lunch at school, Public Advocate Letitia James is calling for the city to expand the program to all students, rich and poor.
“Every child should be guaranteed access to healthy food during the school day,” James said in a press release. “We know that when children are hungry, they are less likely to be attentive in class. I have spoken with the 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.”
Already nearly half of the 1.1 million students in the school system — about 530,000 — already qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, offered to students from low-income households — but as many as 780,000 are eligible, according to Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, a nonprofit that focuses on full utilization of public food programs.
Up to two-thirds of all students in the school system would qualify for free lunch, she said.
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.
According to the Public Advocate’s office, the number of students who eat free or reduced-price school lunch drops from 81 percent of those eligible in elementary school to 61 percent by middle school and 38 percent in high school.
A big part of the issue is the stigma associated with eating school lunch.
“These kids don’t want their classmates to know that they are on a free or reduced lunch program,” Accles said, adding that the stigma becomes more of a problem as a student gets older.
She noted that it often leads to uncomfortable situations, such as when a student can’t afford lunch if they are not getting free lunch.
At a town hall meeting at PS 154 in Flushing on March 5, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fari–a recognized the problem when responding to a parent’s question on the matter. Fari–a said children not eating lunch in school because of fear of bullying over their qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch is a common problem citywide.
“There’s a stigma about it and as a result a lot of students don’t eat or don’t even take part,” she said.
According to James spokeswoman Aja Davis, expanding lunch to all students could cost $20 million more, but the public advocate expects the federal government would reimburse the cost. The federal government currently reimburses the cost of the free lunch program and the Obama administration has been supportive of expanding free lunch and have been promising incentives to do so.
“The federal government has acknowledged that in a lot of states, this is a big issue,” Accles added.
Some other cities, like Dallas, Chicago and Boston, have implemented a universal free lunch program with significant federal support.
James said she is in discussion with the de Blasio administration about implementing such a program.