Op-Ed: Campaign For In-School Universal Free Lunch

Our Continued Fight for Free Lunch

by Letitia James


There is a such thing as a free lunch and we know that thousands of the most vulnerable children in New York City would greatly benefit from it.


The facts are clear: children who are well-fed are more focused and perform better in school. But nearly 250,000 income eligible New York City students do not participate in free school lunch programs and it is even worse in high school where the participation rates dip below 40 percent. But it’s not because these kids aren’t hungry. Too often they are ashamed of standing in a separate line for lunch and the stigma that comes with it of being poor.


And this problem is especially apparent in the Bronx, where almost 30 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line and where the majority of homeless students attend school.


That’s why, I led the fight for universal free lunch for all New York City public school students, regardless of family income.


We launched a pilot program for universal free lunch in stand-alone public middle schools and now, two years later, we’ve seen the results. Schools that participated in the pilot program saw an 8 percent increase in the number of students receiving free lunch. That’s nearly 10,000 more students each day who are eating when they are hungry instead of worrying about the social implications of standing in a different line. But we still have much more work to do.


From Boston, to Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas and many more, cities throughout the country already offer universal free lunch throughout their public school systems. If they can do it there and in Hempstead, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Poughkeepsie, why can’t we get it done in New York City?


Just as we did with universal pre-k, New York City should be leading the national conversation on education, but instead we are falling behind on this critical issue.


Our children are our most prized possessions and we should be doing everything in our power to ensure they are well prepared to learn and for their future. And that means making public education work better by implementing smart reform that moves beyond the test, and holistically develops our students and communities. It’s about helping children be ready to learn and grow into healthy, happy, and productive members of society.


And we have the power to make sure our children are ready to learn every day. The City’s Department of Education $25 billion dollar budget is certainly large enough to be able to afford feeding our children so they don’t have to struggle to get through the school day.


I have repeatedly called for the full implementation of a universal free lunch program because I know that doing so is a common sense investment that will have rippling benefits throughout New York City and especially in the Bronx, where the majority of the City’s low-income students reside. Students will be better nourished and ready for the day. Working families will have more flexibility to make ends meet. And schools will be able to direct more time and resources toward educational enrichment, instead of time consuming administrative duties necessary to process constant paperwork in the current free lunch program.


But no matter how much we do for our schools, if our students aren’t well fed, they won’t be able to learn. We need to build a city where our children are prepared to learn, where our schools are safe havens that enrich lives and where our progressive and inclusive policies uplift all.

Letitia “Tish” James is the New York City Public Advocate. 
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