This week, New York City joined cities including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas in offering free lunches to all its schoolchildren, making it the largest school district in the country to do so. The Free School Lunch for All program announced Wednesday by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will expand eligibility to at least an additional 200,000 students — including not just those at public schools but also charter schools and any private schools that choose to opt into SchoolFood, the city’s free meal program.
But city food advocates say it will have far broader benefits as well: Reducing stigma that currently prevents many needy students from taking advantage of free lunches, and sparing principals from having to chase down parents for lunch payments.
“As kids get older, they stop eating, no matter how hungry they are,” says Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Associates, a policy impact group that focuses on increasing food accessibility to low-income New Yorkers. CFA is one of several groups that have advocated for years that providing free lunch for all would end the drop-off in program participation by students as they approach high school — students who may currently be going hungry out of shame or fear of bullying.
The first school lunches in New York City appeared in 1908, when a home economist named Mabel Hyde Kittredge started a school lunch program at an elementary school in Hell’s Kitchen. The following year, Kittredge founded the New York School Lunch Committee, which by 1915 was serving 80,000 free or low-price lunches annually to children in nearly 25 percent of the schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, most of them in poor neighborhoods. The city’s board of education eventually took over the program in 1920.
In 1946, President Harry Truman established the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program that continues to operate today. When it started, the program served lunches to around 7.1 million children nationwide. Last year, it reached 30.4 million children, who are deemed eligible for free meals if they already participate in other federally funded programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or if their family income is below 130 percent of the federal poverty level. (Families between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-cost lunch.)
One of the unintended consequences of this eligibility model is that a “poverty stigma” has grown up around the program, says Accles. And this poverty stigma has made it much less likely for the very children who need the meals provided by the NSLP to actually take advantage of the program.
With teenagers in particular, Accles says, “peer pressure is not ever to be underestimated. They’re embarrassed to eat [the free lunches], either because someone is actively bullying them, or because they anticipate that that will happen.”
In New York City, a startling number of children may be impacted by such peer pressure. As wealthy as the city may be, 75 percent of its schoolchildren are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches based on their families’ income levels; the cutoff for eligibility for a family of four, for instance, is $45,510 a year. In a city like New York, many families who make too much to be eligible are still struggling to make ends meet. (Accles notes that not having a universal free lunch program also “puts principals in a terrible position, to try to collect fees from parents who don’t have the income.”)
For this reason, food-policy advocates have long called for the city to adopt a universal lunch program. In 2013, Accles’s Community Food Associates launched the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, which partnered with pediatricians, school parents, teachers unions, and school workers unions to push for free lunches for all students in the city. The impetus for this particular campaign was the introduction by the federal government three years prior of the Community Eligibility Program (CEP), which offered an alternative funding model that incentivized a move toward universal school lunches. Instead of matching funds directly to individual students and their families’ income levels, CEP rules that if 40 percent of students at a school, group of schools, or even an entire school district qualify for free lunches, so does the rest of the school or district. CEP also allows schools or districts to qualify without collecting meal application forms, which can be cumbersome and intrusive, providing another impediment to eligible students participating in free lunch programs.
Still, the push toward free school lunches for all was slow and incremental. In 2014, the city implemented a universal meal program in stand-alone middle schools, but from there, efforts stalled out. City officials cited concerns that such programs would not be financially beneficial; they also feared that schools could lose their Title I funding, since the meal application forms, which are also used to measure poverty levels for other programs, would no longer be necessary — a fear that was proven unfounded by the universal meal program in the city’s middle schools. “Honestly, we have never fully understood the resistance,” Accles says.
What finally allowed the city to sign on to a universal meals program was a new data matching engine that identifies eligible students through electronic documentation acquired from other government programs, such as SNAP and Medicaid. The data matching makes it easier to identify students who are eligible for free lunches — and, thanks to CEP, identifying more eligible students has allowed entire districts to qualify for free meals. Because of this new matching engine, the program is not expected to increase costs to the city, according to the New York Times.
Accles says that high school students, who endure the worst bullying, will benefit greatly from Free School Lunch for All, and from no longer standing out from their classmates for receiving free meals. But even more likely to benefit, perhaps, are the children just starting out in school, who, thanks to the eradication of the poverty stigma that this new program should bring, will never have to feel shame for getting a healthy meal at the one place they can count on it: their schools.