It was a proud moment for New York City when its public school system began implementing universal free school lunch on the first day of the school year in 2017.
It was a hard won policy change thanks to the efforts and leadership of Community Food Advocates and other partners. It meant that all of the system’s 1.1 million students in every school and in every grade could eat for free, regardless of family income, and without shame or stigma. It meant that few or no kids would experience lunch-shaming and other punitive measures. At the time, I called it a “victory for health, children, education, and equity.”
Two years later, we are already seeing positive results:
More children participate. An additional 26,000 New York City students are now eating lunch at school — that’s 4.5 million additional meals per year. And when free lunch is available to all students, both those newly eligible and those who were previously eligible are more likely to eat lunch at school.
Academic achievement improves. Researchers from Syracuse University’s Center for Policy Research recently found that making free lunch available to all students boosted academic performance among New York City middle school students.
Health gets better. Syracuse’s research also shows that universal school lunch does not lead to increased obesity among students; in fact, it may increase the likelihood of students having a healthy weight.
It’s clear that universal school lunch is working, but there’s still more work to be done. We need to be sure that school meals are nutritious, delicious, and appealing, and that students are actually eating them. Extra effort is needed in middle and high schools, where uptake of school lunch has historically been the lowest.
For many adults, school cafeterias and food evoke dreary images. Think of the clichés: mystery meat or a baloney sandwich, served by a stern but loving lunch lady, and eaten in a run-down fluorescent-lit room.
Now, New York City is shaking things up. Schools have been redesigning their cafeterias to make the atmosphere more inviting; they are turning them into spaces where students want to hang out. Changes like deli-style service lines and more student-friendly café-style seating are being introduced. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) reported that, in high schools with both redesigned cafeterias and universal school lunch, participation in lunch doubled in some schools and increased an average of 31% across all schools. Even though the food is largely the same, students are consuming more salads and vegetables in these schools. Building on this success, DOE has committed an additional $25 million this school year to redesign up to 70 middle school and high school cafeterias throughout New York City.
Priority is also being given to the quality and taste of school food. Students themselves get to be food critics at the City’s school lunch test kitchen, where new recipes are developed, sampled, and rated. (For some of the cutest and unsparingly honest kids, check out this video). Under an initiative called “New York Thursdays,” staff plan and promote locally grown or produced food menus and cooking lessons across all New York City schools. They are also working to establish nutrition committees — including students, parents, teachers, administrators, parent coordinators, and staff — to identify and implement ways to improve the quality and appeal of food in their schools. Opportunities include Meatless Mondays and the introduction of more scratch cooking using fresher, local ingredients in school cafeterias.
Feeding kids in ways consistent with their home lives also matters. For example, some students come from households that observe halal or kosher dietary laws. Last year, 11 schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens began participating in a pilot program to provide halal and kosher school meals, and 15 more have joined on this school year.
New York City’s school food system is vast. It is said that it prepares and serves more meals per day than any other institution in America besides the military. What happens in the schools can have ripple effects. Now, officials and community leaders are exploring implementation of the Good Food Purchasing Program, an initiative to ensure that a city’s food-serving agencies are procuring food that is healthy, local, fair, and sustainable. The program has been implemented in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, D.C., Austin, Cincinnati, and Boston, among other major cities. In just two years, the Los Angeles Unified School District increased local purchases of fruits and vegetables from 9% to 75% of its produce budget and doubled its local food purchasing overall. (Results of an evaluation of the Los Angeles program are available here.) It could be another opportunity for New York to lead the nation.
New York City’s universal free school lunch program is on the right track. More kids are eating lunch at school; test scores are up; and plans are underway to build on early wins. Making lunch universally free removed a lot of barriers to health and learning. But it was just the beginning. If we can take what’s working to scale, New York’s children will have a better chance to grow, to learn, and to be healthy.
By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in Medium on November 20, 2019