November 18, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – There is such a thing as a free lunch, New York City’s education unions contend—and they say it wouldn’t cost that much to give one to all public-school students.
At dusk in front of City Hall Nov. 16, a group of about 150 people—parents, a dozen-odd students, and members of Local 372 of DC 37, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators—urged Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council to put money for “universal feeding,” free meals for all students, in next year’s city budget.
A city program begun in September 2014 gives free lunches to students in about 530 of the city’s 1,700-odd schools, mostly in middle schools. The Lunch 4 Learning campaign says many children can’t afford either the $1.75 full-price lunch or the 25-cent reduced price, and are afraid of being bullied for being poor if they take a free lunch.
“There’s no excuse for kids to go hungry,” UFT middle-school vice-president Rich Martell told the crowd. “Kids do better when they eat. You know that.”
“We’re asking the mayor to keep his promise,” Local 372 executive vice-president Donald Nesbit told LaborPress. The 23,000-member union represents support staff in city schools, including lunchroom workers.
Nesbit said that when he worked as a cook in a Brooklyn high school, many kids would “sit there and go hungry” because they couldn’t afford lunch. A lot of lunchroom workers would either slip them food or buy them lunch, but doing that “puts us at risk of getting in trouble.”
The current program spends $11.25 million a year to provide free lunch to all students in the 285 “standalone” middle schools—schools with only grades 6 through 8—and District 75 special-education programs, says Liz Accles, head of Community Food Advocates and leader of the Lunch 4 Learning campaign. Including federal programs, about 580 schools offer universal free lunch.
The campaign argues that it would cost only $8.75 million more to expand the program to all city students, as federal and state aid covers more than 90% of total lunch costs.
The de Blasio administration is open to the idea, but wouldn’t explicitly support it. “We remain committed to providing students with healthy meals in school, and continue to review the possibility of expanding it to even more schools,” spokesperson Austin Finan said.
During the 2015-16 school year, 76.5% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, the mayor’s office says, and over 400 schools currently provide free breakfast to about 30,000 students. The city plans to have “Breakfast in the Classroom” programs in all buildings housing only elementary schools by the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
The Lunch 4 Learning campaign argues that giving all children free lunch will eliminate the stigma on those who get it for being poor. “Kids who get on line get bullied for eating ‘free-free,’” youth leader Aminata Abdouramane told LaborPress. “We know who is eligible and who is not, because they see who’s paying.”
“There is simply no excuse for any child to go hungry in our schools,” Public Advocate Letitia James said, especially with the increasing number of homeless kids. Boston, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, and Baltimore all provide universal free lunch, she added, and with the Department of Education’s $25 billion budget, “we should be able to feed our children.”