Free Lunch For All Students

New program will provide free school lunches to more than 200,000 additional students. Photo: Department of Education.

New data matching system identifies children eligible for free lunch. On September 7, 2017, the NYC Department of Education rolled out a new initiative: Free School Lunch for All. In New York City, almost 800,000 students out of 1.1 million were estimated to have qualified for free school lunch. The new program will provide free school lunches to more than 200,000 additional New York City students, so that all students will receive a nutritional meal every school day.

A school lunch at a City public school had cost students $1.75. Students who were unable to pay that price often faced shame from their peers. By providing a free school lunch to all public-school students, the City eliminates one of the stigmas many elementary, middle, and high school students faced.

The Department of Education had implemented a new data matching system, the Direct Certification Matching Process, which for the 2017-2018 school year identified families eligible for free lunch in preparation. The matching process system was an initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture which qualified students for free lunch using certifications through Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The use of the program resulted in the City increasing the number of students matched for the free lunch program. That increase led to an increased direct certification rate, allowing the City to qualify for the highest level of reimbursement under the federal Community Eligibility Provision program. To enroll, however, students and their parents were required to fill out proper forms. Many did not for many reasons, including the associated stigmatization. Approximately one third of eligible students were missing out and unable to participate.

City officials emphasized in a press release on September 7, 2017, that the increase of students matched for the free lunch program did not imply that family poverty has increased, only that the identification of qualified families had improved. In 2016, nearly 75 percent of students from low-income families—families earning less than $37,000 for a household of three—were previously entitled to free school lunch. The new initiative seeks to bridge the 25 percent gap. The program will be applied to all New York City schools which participate in SchoolFood, the organization which serves and provides student meal programs, including charter and non-charter public schools.

The program is a product of the efforts of Chancellor Carmen Fariña, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Public Advocate Letitia James, and other school nutrition advocates. Free Lunch for All, along with the City’s Breakfast in the Classroom Initiative which provides public school students with a free breakfast, will ensure that all students are receiving nutritional meals during the week. Other related programs include the Summer Meals program, which provides children under the age of 18 with a free breakfast and lunch during the summer, and NY Thursdays, which provides schools with locally sourced and produced food every Thursday all year.

By: Qualia Hendrickson (Qualia is a student at New York Law School, Class of 2018)

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