New York City families got some good back-to-school news this week: School lunches are free to all of the city’s 1.1 million public school students.
The new policy, already in place in other major cities, just makes sense. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration first tested the approach in middle schools, and announced the full expansion of the program on Wednesday.
Some public school students from low-income families have long been eligible for free school lunches in NYC and across the country. In NYC, more than 500,000 low-income students received free or reduced-price lunch even before this week; another 250,000 who met the income requirements didn’t use the benefit.
With free lunches offered only to poor kids, there was a stigma; many children did not want classmates to know how poor their families are. And parents who are in the country illegally often have been reluctant to file school-lunch forms for fear that they would be reviewed by the federal government and risk being exposed and deported. The new NYC policy also offers relief to families who struggle financially but didn’t qualify for free lunch.
Around the country, some school districts have been criticized for so-called lunch shaming — children whose parents haven’t paid lunch bills were not served lunch and in some cases were treated in humiliating ways. Universal free lunch will end those abuses, cut down on the bureaucracy and paperwork to figure out who qualifies and, most important, feed more kids.
Though advocates have increasingly pushed for the benefit, it is unlikely the Trump administration would institute nationwide universal free school lunch. Yet NYC can offer the benefit without raising city taxes because of a federal program that allows school districts with a high percentage of low-income students to make lunch free for all kids. Boston and Dallas are two cities that already participate in the program.
More districts nationwide should take advantage of the federal program. But in NYC, progressive activists and policymakers, including Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, deserve credit for making it happen.
Liza Featherstone lives and writes in Clinton Hill.