There is something new on the menu this school year: free lunch for all New York City public school students.
The UFT had campaigned long and hard for a universal free lunch program, with UFT members and officers testifying at hearings, lobbying Mayor Bill de Blasio and raising awareness through social media and rallies.
“As a New York City public school teacher, as a parent and as a union activist, I was very proud to be a part of the initiative,” said Sophy Aponte, an educator from PS 18 in the Bronx who participated in the union’s campaign for universal free lunch. “Parents no longer have to concern themselves with paying for school lunches — that will no longer have to be a burden.”
Last year, 75 percent of New York City public school students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch because their families met household income requirements. The new policy will provide about 200,000 more students with free lunch.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew, whose first nonteaching assignment as a teacher was in the school cafeteria, spoke about the burden the previous income restrictions placed on children: “I would have to separate the students who could get lunch and the students who couldn’t, and I saw the stigma and said, ‘This is not what New York is about.’”
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced the change at PS 51 in Manhattan on the day before the start of classes. She estimated the program will save New York City families an average of $300 per year each on school lunches.
School officials said the federal government will pick up the additional tab. The city Department of Education this summer proved its eligibility for a federally funded program that enables all children in a community to get lunch at no charge if more than 62.5 percent of the students are certified as poor enough to qualify.
Since New York City schools already provide breakfast free of charge to all students, universal free lunch means two meals a day will now be covered for 1.1 million children in the five boroughs.
“Particularly, I’m thinking about all the homeless children in the city,” said Public Advocate Letitia James, one of the most vocal supporters of universal free lunch. “Instead of being hungry and worrying about their next meal, they can focus on learning.”