Parents Request Free Lunches for all NYC Students

Many students from low-income family do not participate in the available free lunch programs. Via El Diario.

Many students from low-income family do not participate in the available free lunch programs (Photo via El Diario)

On Thursday, a coalition of community leaders and parents from at least 20 school districts, joined by Public Advocate Letitia James, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to fulfill his promise to extend the universal lunch program to every student in the New York City public school system.

In his 2016 budget, de Blasio only included lunches for junior high school students, driving the coalition to insist on the need to incorporate all 1.1 million students in the city.

“It is time for the mayor to make good on the promise he so enthusiastically made while he was a candidate,” said Miguel Rodríguez, president of the Staten Island Federation of Parent Teacher Associations.

Public Advocate James has been pushing for the city’s approval of the Lunch 4 Learning initiative ‒ which would provide lunch to every New York City public school student ‒ since last year.

“We have been fighting to extend access to food to all students because they cannot learn without proper nutrition. The same way we did with universal pre-K, New York City should be the nation’s leader in regards to education, but it is lagging behind in this crucial issue,” said James.

Although the mayor has been hesitant about the program and its outcome, members of the campaign have defended the measure, saying that between 10,000 and 15,000 students have joined the initiative. Compared to the previous year, there was a 10 percent increase in the first six months of the 2014-15 school year. According to figures provided by promoters of the campaign, the program would benefit 12,000 additional students if extended universally.

“We need to ensure that students will have access to nutritious food and that, in our schools, hunger will not be an obstacle to learning. We are still reviewing the results of the pilot program,” said de Blasio in a press release.

Rodríguez, who also represents high schools in the City Council, said that “providing universal lunches to all students eliminates two problems: having children refuse to eat even when they’re hungry to avoid being embarrassed by their classmates, and the problem of families who do not qualify for free lunches but are also unable to afford paying for lunch.”

A request to meet with de Blasio

Members of the coalition, who stood on the steps of the City Council, wrote a letter to the mayor to request an extension of the lunch program in his executive budget. They also asked to hold a meeting with de Blasio as soon as possible to discuss the way the program benefits both children and families.

Among the people who signed the letter were members of the School Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, the City Council Committee on Education, (…) dozens of representatives from school districts throughout the borough and parent associations.

“Free universal school lunches are as important as the goal of increasing socioeconomic integration in our public schools,” said Maggie Spillane, member of the Community Education Council for District 13.

According to data provided by the Public Advocate’s office, the full expansion of the program would only cost $3.6 million, while advocates estimate that the city would obtain $22.6 million in additional state and federal reimbursements for increased participation due to a favorable reimbursement structure stipulated by the Community Eligibility Provision federal law.

Benefits for families

Additionally, the free universal lunch program would ease the burden on families struggling to satisfy their children’s nutritional needs. They would see savings of approximately $900 per year per child, and many new jobs would be created.

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“Even though I qualified for my daughter to receive free lunch, sometimes she doesn’t want to eat there. I believe that it must be approved for all, without distinction. The most important thing is that they feel comfortable around their peers and that they are well fed,” said Benigno Guzmán, 30, from Mexico.

Adriana Peláez, 32, the Colombian mother of a school-age child, agrees. “I have a son in eighth grade, and for me it is helpful to have him eat lunch at school. My job does not always allow me to prepare him a meal,” she said. “With this, families are able to save. All we ask for is that they are healthy foods.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer concurred, saying: “When students eat, what they eat is a determining factor in their capacity to learn.”

“It is time for New York to join the country’s major cities in adopting the universal school lunch as a standard. It’s the right thing for our children,” said Brewer.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has also spoken in favor of the Lunch 4 Learning program in the past. “We need to make sure that students all over the city have the necessary resources to become successful. A universal free lunch program will ensure that they will be well nourished and that they can stay alert throughout the school day,” she said.

Activists and parents insist that one of the main benefits of offering free lunches for all students is to help reduce the stigma faced every day by nearly 75 percent of them who qualify for the program but feel ashamed to use it.

The main problem is that many students from low-income families do not participate in the available free lunch programs simply because they are afraid to be perceived as poor.

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