Free School Lunches for All

By Chris Hoenig

Photo by USDA

What if students didn’t have to deal with the stigma that many associate with receiving a free or reduced-price school lunch What if parents didn’t have to worry about sharing their income levels with school administrators What if EVERY student got a free lunch AND a free breakfast EVERY day in school

In big cities across the country, free school breakfasts and lunches for every childregardless of family incomeis becoming a reality, and a public advocate wants our nation’s largest city to be the next.

Public advocate Letitia James is calling on New York City schools to join a federal program that provides lunch to all students at no cost. “There is a poverty stigma associated with school-provided lunch,” she said. “We have children standing on two separate lines to get foodthose who are paying and those who are not. That is why we’re here to announce our plans for free lunch for every public-school student, and to eliminate that stigma.”

About 530,000 New York City students from low-income families already participate in the school’s two lunch programs: a free-lunch program open to families of four with an annual income below $30,615, and a reduced-price program for families with an income up to $43,568. They account for almost half of the 1.1 million children in the city’s public schools.

But another 250,000 students who qualify do not take part in the program. James said that many parents don’t fill out the necessary paperwork because they are embarrassed or because they may be undocumented immigrants who are reluctant to fill out any kind of official form. Others, she said, simply don’t know about the program.

Just adding those additional quarter million kids would increase the city’s costs by $40 million a year, but introducing free meals for every studentwithout the need for parents to fill out paperworkcould actually end up saving the city money in the long run.

Under the federal Community Eligibility Option, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama in 2010, New York City would be reimbursed by the federal government for most, if not all, of the meals. Through the CEO, the government classifies students into two groups: “identified students” and paid meals. “Identified students” are those whose families participate in federal assistance programs, including SNAP (formerly food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Medicaid (which already allows automatic access to free lunches); or who are considered homeless, migrants, runaways, are in the Head Start program or are foster children. That number is then multiplied by 1.6 to determine the number of students for whom the government will reimburse meals.

To put that in perspective: 780,000 students qualify without the need for additional paperwork in New York City. When multiplied by 1.6, that means the federal government would reimburse the meal costs for up to 1,248,000 students (though the funding is capped at 100% of the student population). In any district nationwide, funding is covered for all students if 62.5 percent of public school students are classified as “identified students.”

“There is a fund for economically disadvantaged children in the elementary school our youngest attends,” says DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, who lives in New Jersey. “A high percentage of the students in the school [about 35 percent] qualify for subsidized lunches. Providing equal dignity demands that there should be no way to tell who needs the subsidy.

“I seeno reason why all the children can’t eat for freewe pay the highest property taxes in America and the state income tax is almost 9 percent. There’s plenty of money, it’s just a matter of priorities.”

Savings for the schools don’t end with federal reimbursement. In Boston, which instituted the program this school year, the school system lost $350,000 in unpaid lunchesmore than one-third of the nearly $1 million in lunch costs the city spent. With about 75 percent of the students qualifying for reimbursement, the city should see the costs for breakfast and lunch fully covered by the federal government.

In Dallas, 89 percent of students applied for a free or reduced-priced lunch last school year. By entering into the CEO program this year, the district was able to eliminate about 40 temporary positions that were created to process the mountains of paperwork. Combining those positions with the costs of the paperwork itself, sending information about the program to homes and calling parents, the district has spent about $300,000 a year just to administrate the free lunch program, all of which will be saved now.

The program is also already in place in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Outside of Albany, N.Y., the town of Schenectady is looking at additional benefits that the program provides. “The Schenectady City School District believes that one of the most important ways we can help our children perform better in class is to provide them with the nutrition necessary for the healthy growth of minds and bodies,” the district website announced. “To accomplish that, we offer breakfast and lunch in our schools each day.”

The CEO program is expected to expand even more for the 20142015 school year, when every district nationwide becomes eligible to take part.

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