Building Healthy Communities

Grantee Name

Community Food Advocates (CFA) and Global Strategy Group (GSG)

Funding Area

Building Healthy Communities

Publication Date

September 2020

Grant Amount

$549,000 ($300,000 to CFA; $249,000 to GSG)


Before 2017, in New York City, 75% of the 1.1 million public school students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, but only one-third of eligible students took part in the program.

Students, especially in high school, skipped the lunch program to avoid the embarrassment and bullying associated with being poor. By delinking school food from family income and making meals free for all students, universal school lunch removes the barrier to lunch participation by lessening that stigma—in turn boosting children’s health and education outcomes.

To help make universal school lunch a reality, NYHealth awarded Community Food Advocates (CFA) a grant in support its advocacy efforts to make free and healthy school meals available to all New York City public school students, regardless of income. NYHealth also awarded Global Strategy Group (GSG), a public affairs and communications firm, grants in 2016 and 2017 to help advance the goals of CFA’s campaign.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

To help build the case for universal school lunch, CFA also actively monitored and facilitated student participation in the middle school free lunch program by:

  • Conducting interviews and surveys among students, parents, school principals, and school food staff;
  • Promoting the free lunch program to all middle school parents and students;
  • Working with school food staff to increase student participation in lunch programs by evaluating food and cafeteria appeal and menu selection;
  • Conducting school visits to identify best practices in schools with the highest participation rates, as well as barriers in those with low participation rates;
  • Analyzing Office of School Food data and documenting the impact of best practice strategies in middle and high schools; and
  • Meeting regularly with key City Councilmembers, committee staff, and caucuses to brief them on the benefits of universal school lunch.

To help support the campaign for system-wide implementation of universal school lunch, NYHealth awarded GSG a grant in 2016 to partner with CFA. GSG identified key influencers, helped create messaging to reach the right audiences at the right time, and used social media and press outreach to build broad support for the program, including:

  • Garnering dozens of media stories about the issue;
  • Organizing a public rally on the steps of City Hall; and
  • Engaging City Councilmembers to become champions for universal school lunch.

NYHealth went beyond just contributing grant dollars, actively working with CFA, GSG, and a coalition of other funders to raise the visibility of universal school lunch and educate the public and policymakers about the issue, including:

  • Held events and met with key stakeholders such as First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray;
  • Published blog posts; and
  • Supported a range of advocacy efforts, including a direct mail campaign, television advertising, digital and social media, a survey on how New York City voters viewed universal school lunch; and public rallies.

Despite the best combined efforts of NYHealth, CFA, and GSG, universal school lunch was not included in the preliminary New York City budget for fiscal year 2016–2017. Undaunted, NYHealth doubled down on its support for the campaign, continuing to back CFA and GSG in their efforts to ensure the City would adopt universal school lunch beginning in the 2017–2018 school year. During the next phase of this grant, CFA and GSG:

  • Worked with L4L school-based partner unions DC37, UFT, and CSA to place an op-ed in the New York Daily News to draw attention to the campaign.
  • Organized a rally of parents, students, and union members at City Hall to attract media attention, which garnered coverage from outlets such as Spectrum News NY1 and News 12 Brooklyn.
  • Collected more than 8,000 postcards signed by public school parents, which were delivered by parent leaders to City Hall.
  • Secured the continued support of the City Councilmembers and the Public Advocate, as well as garnered the support of all five Borough Presidents. The bipartisan, all-borough support received significant media coverage and helped to keep the issue front and center with the Mayor.
  • Organized a Youth Justice League to further rally and engage high school youth in the fight for universal free school lunch and other school food and food equity issues. The Youth Justice League continues to provide a pipeline of students of color who organize around and advocate for food justice policy change.

NYHealth also continued to champion the issue through additional blog posts and other commentary, social media, and meetings with stakeholders.

This partnership paid off in June 2017, when the Mayor and City Council Speaker announced a budget that included a substantial expansion of free school lunch to 1,471 schools (90%) covering 838,000 students (84%). This was followed by a September 2017 announcement by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) of the “Free School Lunch For All” initiative—making free school lunch system-wide in New York City public schools. Now all 1.1 million public school students, and millions more in future, have access to a free lunch every school day, regardless of income.

Co-funding and Additional Funds Leveraged: As a result of the success of the campaign, NYHealth’s investment has leveraged approximately $38 million each year from the federal government and $10 million from New York City to help fund universal school lunch in New York City public schools. Additional funders for the L4L campaign included the New York Community Trust ($75,000), New York Foundation ($40,000), Mertz Gilmore Foundation ($40,000), the Sirus Fund ($50,000), Levitt Foundation ($20,000), and North Star Foundation ($25,000) to support CFA in its goal to see maximum student participation in universal school lunch.