Bringing Free Lunch to All of New York City’s School Children
Building Healthy Communities
The COVID-19 pandemic has glaringly widened the rift in food security for many people, especially Black, Hispanic, and low-income New Yorkers and their families.
As parents and children ready themselves for an uncertain return to school this September, New York City public schools can be model for ensuring all students have equitable access to healthy food that can help them learn and thrive.
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 to 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) grants in 2016 and 2017 to help advance the goals of CFA’s campaign.
Over a two-year period, NYHealth, CFA, and GSG undertook a range of efforts to build broad support for universal school lunch and educate the public and policymakers about the issue. This commitment and partnership paid off in June 2017 when the City included a substantial expansion of free school lunch in its budget. The New York City Department of Education followed suit in September 2017 by making school lunch free system-wide in New York City public schools. Now all 1.1 million public school students, and millions more in the future, have access to a free lunch every school day, regardless of income.