[This op-ed was originally published in the Daily News on Nov. 28, 2016.]
We know we speak for all teachers, principals and school staff when we say that our greatest holiday wish is that we never see another hungry child in our public schools again. While there is very little we can do in the hours when students leave our care, it is imperative that we use whatever power we do have to make sure that during the school day, every student has access to nutritious food.
Mayor de Blasio must keep his campaign promise to bring universal free school lunch to New York City public school students.
DC37, the UFT and the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators collectively represent more than 300,000 municipal and public school employees who stand firm in their support of the mayor implementing universal free lunch in all New York City public schools. As we enter a more politically conservative era in Washington, D.C., it is crucial that he stand by his word, include this priority in his 2017 preliminary budget and implement the program in the upcoming school year.
New York City has been providing universal free breakfast to all public school students for more than a decade. Nearly 600 schools already provide free lunch. Federal and state reimbursements cover over 90% of the total costs, and the city makes up the balance.
De Blasio’s 2014 implementation of free lunch in stand-alone New York City middle schools has yielded only positive results, with thousands of additional students participating in the program.
Based on an analysis by Community Food Advocates of Department of Education data, over 60% of students participate in school lunch in middle schools with universal free school lunch, versus 40% in those without. In the same analysis, 50% of high school students with universal free school lunch ate versus 30% without, and 80% of elementary students with universal free school lunch ate versus 70% without.
We believe the time has come to make this program available for all students in all New York City schools.
It’s known fact that healthy students do better in academic performance and achievement. Likewise, children who are hungry simply can’t concentrate and have more difficulty getting good grades. Students spend much of their time at school, and may eat as many as two out of three meals per day there. For some students, school is where they receive their only meals.
Without a doubt, federal poverty guidelines are out of touch with the realities of living in a city such as ours. Currently, two-thirds of public school students are eligible for the federally funded free or reduced-price school lunch, with an annual family income less than $37,000 for family of three.
Thousands of families do not qualify for free school lunch, but they still earn too little to pay for it. Currently, parents and caregivers must spend roughly $1,000 a year per child on lunch if they must provide it themselves. Too many families can’t afford this and they are slipping through the cracks, which means too many students are skipping this important meal. For a little more than $1 a day per student, we can make a difference now in the lives of children here in New York City.
By increasing the Department of Education school lunch program budget to approximately $20 million, $11.25 million of which has already been committed in 2015, every public school student can have access to a meal during the day on equal terms.
The mayor has made advancing educational, economic and social equality for working families the cornerstone of his administration. Towards that end, under his leadership, our school system has become a model for the country with the implementation of universal pre-K. Universal free school lunch is entirely consistent with these objectives, so there is no excuse for the delay.
New York City is lagging behind the nation on this essential priority; Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Dallas and Detroit are all ahead of us. New York City is even lagging behind Buffalo, Hempstead, Poughkeepsie, Rochester and Syracuse, which are already providing this important program. We must be next.