New York’s $75 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began last week includes the first step toward offering all 1.1 million students free lunch, expanding a program now reserved only for the city’s poorest children.
Starting in September, the city will spend an additional $6.25 million a year so that all 177,000 students in the sixth through eighth grades will qualify for free breakfast and lunch without requiring parents to certify that their income is 130 percent of the $30,615 poverty level for a family of four.
By expanding the program, advocates seek to eliminate the shame and embarrassment that keep many children who qualify for the free lunches from receiving them. About 780,000 city students are poor enough to be eligible, yet only about 250,000 participate, according to the New York Times.
“Many students who do qualify for free lunch often do not take advantage of it for fear of the stigma they face,” said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, an East Harlem Democrat who predicted that future budgets would grant all city children free lunch. “Universal free lunch would eliminate that stigma and help ensure that all students have access to a nutritious meal at school.”
De Blasio’s Balance
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a 53-year-old Democrat, resisted efforts by the council to spend $24 million to extend the program to all students. The mayor, who took office Jan. 1 vowing to fight income inequality, said he needed to balance that goal with fiscal responsibility.
New York’s free-lunch program cost $425 million last year, with the city paying about $23 million and the federal government contributing more than $375 million, according to Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. The state contributed about $10 million, and an additional $16 million came from miscellaneous revenue.
In announcing his June 20 budget deal with the council, de Blasio described providing lunch to all middle-school students as part of an agenda that included expanded summer youth programs, investment in affordable housing, universal pre-kindergarten and increased police protection in public housing.
Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Rochester and Syracuse are some of the 600 low-income school districts that have made the free lunch program universal. The cities took advantage of a 2010 federal law that extended lunch to all students without the need to review and submit the parental income-disclosure paperwork. Any district can qualify for that waiver when 40 percent of its student families receive food stamps.
The National School Lunch Program, which began in 1946, has taken an increasing bite out of the federal budget, leading some to question its value. Its initial $70 million outlay fed about 7 million. In 2012, more than 31.6 million students received free lunch at a cost $11.6 billion, up from $6.1 billion in 2000.
“Economists always say there’s no such thing as a free lunch; someone has to pay for it,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief of staff for former President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers.
“New York and federal budgets and taxpayers are under stress right now, and the question is, how best to target the dollars we have,” she said. “It’s more efficient to spend it on the basis of need. Up until now we’ve had a core value that people with limited income should get services like this.”
During the summer months, the federal government also subsidizes free breakfasts and lunches for any child 18 years old or younger.
De Blasio last month vowed the city would deliver food to more children this year than the record 7.6 million it served last year. To meet that goal, the city has opened 1,000 sites at pools, playgrounds, schools, libraries and public housing developments.
About 200 a day get fed at the Mullaly Pool in the South Bronx, just three blocks from Yankee Stadium, a neighborhood where 31 percent live at or below the poverty line. About 200 lunches -- a sandwich, chocolate milk, carrot sticks, a piece of fruit -- gets distributed there most days, said George Davis, a parks worker.
The lunch area, which has about five tables, “gets packed as soon as they announce it’s being served,” said Jeffrey Garcia, 35, a network engineer for a telecommunications company, who brought his three children to the pool last week.
“The pool empties out and they form a long line waiting for the meals to be distributed,” Garcia said. “Sure they work up an appetite from horsing around in the water, but you can also get an appreciation for the fact that times are hard and some of these kids are just plain hungry.”