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Such a Thing as a Free Lunch—for all School Kids

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in the Huffington Post on April 25, 2016

In the next few weeks, parents across New York City will receive notices about prekindergarten slots for children attending school this fall. Thanks to Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, universal pre-K became a reality for children across New York two years ago. The first year of the program was a success, with 92% of parents in NYC rating their child’s experience as good or excellent. Universal pre-K helped make New York a leader in the movement toward better education and greater equity.

If we want to ensure that our kids get off to a healthy start and are ready to learn, there is a natural next step: providing universal school lunch as well as universal prekindergarten.

In this land of plenty, a hungry child is among the starkest symbols of inequality. A hungry child can’t learn or realize her full potential. A hungry child is more likely to the listen to the rumblings in his stomach than to the squeal of chalk on the blackboard. Hungry kids find it harder to do what is good for their health and engage in a natural part of growing up: being physically active and playing.

Public education strives to provide kids with the tools they need to succeed. Public school students are provided with text books and pencils and the other supplies they need to make it through the school day—free of charge. Adequate nutritious food is just as important to feed the mind and the body and optimize learning.

Universal school lunch is not such a stretch. New York City schools already offer all students free breakfast and make free lunch available to students in standalone middle schools. The problem is that while many children are eligible for free meals, few of them participate. Only one-third of public school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch take part in the program. What is stopping them? Stigma. Students, especially in high school, skip the lunch program to avoid the embarrassment and bullying associated with being poor. Food is the one arena in public schools that segregates children by family income. When all kids have access to free lunch, that stigma dissolves and more students participate. Principals reported that New York City’s middle school lunch program has led to more students eating lunch—and eating more nutritious foods—at school and to positive social interactions among students. Higher levels of participation also increase schools’ purchasing power, allowing them to provide more local, fresh, and organic food options.

As if those benefits aren’t sufficient, universal lunch also makes financial sense. Although universal school lunch would require an estimated investment of an additional $8.75 million by the City, it would yield additional federal and State reimbursements, according to an analysis by Community Food Advocates. A universal lunch program also is much less burdensome administratively than the current program, which requires collecting fees and specifically tracking children as they eat.

One last point: universal school lunch is already a fact in many places outside New York City. Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo already have this program in place, as do big cities like Boston, Chicago, Dallas, D.C., and Detroit. New York City had led on so many innovative policies that promote health and protect students. It’s time to play catch up on this one. With its 1.1 million public school students, New York City is the largest school system in the country; it could accomplish one of the most far-reaching pro-child and pro-health feats of all.

So, the cliché notwithstanding, why not a free lunch?

Follow David Sandman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidsandman1