Universal school lunch is recognized as a program that will eliminate the poverty stigma of participating in school lunch, improve children’s health and education outcomes, and bring more federal dollars to New York City. An astonishing 75% of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. However, 250,000 (1 in 3) eligible students do not participate. The reason is simple: students skip the lunch program to avoid the stigma and bullying associated with a “free-free,” a derisive term for free school lunch. This leads to a skipped lunch phenomenon at a time when children most need food during the day. Universal school lunch is already a fact in many other places; Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo have this program in place, as do other major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Detroit.

However, as we head into the final stretch of approval of the 2017 City budget, the $8.75 million in proposed funding to make universal school lunch a reality is not a sure thing. New York City is the largest school system in the country; it could accomplish one of the most far-reaching pro-child and pro-health feats of all by making universal school lunch a reality.

Ms. Accles made the case for why public schools should not divide children by income. Food access should be a valued and positive aspect of the school day; instead, food is the one arena in public schools that segregates children by family income. She said the premise of public schools is that every child has full access to all school resources—be it teachers, text books, laboratory equipment, or extracurricular enrichment programs—free of charge and regardless of family income or ability to pay. When all kids have access to free lunch, the stigma dissolves and more students participate. Principals have reported that New York City’s middle school free lunch program has led to more students eating lunch—and eating more nutritious foods—at school and positive social interactions among students. Higher levels of school lunch participation also increase schools’ purchasing power, allowing them to provide more local, fresh, and organic food options.

Ms. Lindsay, a former New York City public school parent of two, described the issues that children have to deal with on a daily basis: eat school lunch or face constant bullying from classmates. Her own son once told her that he could not get into the school lunch line for fear of what his classmates might think. “They are going to make fun of me, so I’d rather be hungry,” said Ms. Lindsay’s son. The stigma of poverty not only affects children but parents as well. For parents who cannot afford to pay, or fall behind in school lunch payments, visiting their child’s school becomes like visiting the bill collector. “It’s not about low income, high income, no income. It’s just about children being able to be fed appropriately in a school system that has the money,” said Ms. Lindsay.

Councilmember Kallos spoke about why he is a passionate supporter of universal school lunch. As the child of a single parent growing up on the Upper East Side, Councilmember Kallos relied on the government to get enough to eat and learned firsthand the stigma associated with accepting food assistance. He has been an early and outspoken supporter of universal school lunch, and he highlighted the economic perspective: more than 90% of the cost for this program would be covered through the federal government. “It’s just sound budget sense, which is to get as much money from the federal government into New York City and New York State as possible,” said Councilmember Kallos.

Learn more about the campaign for universal school lunch and firsthand testimony from students and parents.

Read a Huffington Post blog by NYHealth President and CEO David Sandman about the importance and feasibility of making school lunches free for all of New York City’s school children.

Read a Huffington Post article about the stigma of school lunch by a student involved in the Lunch 4 Learning Campaign.

Read an Op-Ed in the Staten Island Advance in support universal free lunch by Miguel Rodriguez, President of the Staten Island Federation of Parent Teacher Associations.

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