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NYC Offers Free Lunch to All 1.1 Million Public School Students — Yes, You Read That Right

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Today was the first day of school for my sons, both of whom attend a New York City public school in Queens, NY. In their backpacks was a letter from the Chancellor of Schools, Carmen Fariña, announcing that all students who attend New York City public school will be receiving free lunch, starting this school year.

Yep, all 1.1 million kids. How incredible is that?

“The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is pleased to announce that starting this school year, lunch is now completely free for all students in every New York City public school,” read the letter. “Breakfast is already provided for free and now all meals will be served at no charge to families.”

This news totally had me grinning ear to ear, and let me tell you why.

My family is not currently in an income bracket that makes us eligible for free lunch (though this was not the case a mere five years ago, when we were low-income enough to qualify for SNAP and Medicaid). The majority of students who attend my son’s school are middle class, and also do not qualify for free lunch.

But in a big city like ours, the vast majority of children are eligible for free lunch, and many are very much in need of it. The New York Times reports that 75% of New York City kids are low-income and qualify for free lunch or reduced-priced lunch. This initiative will mean that an additional 200,000 students will receive free lunch, which is fantastic.

Perhaps most importantly, the kids who are already eligible for free lunch will not have to feel stigmatized about it, because every child will be on equal footing in the lunchroom.

“This is about equity,” Ms. Fariña tells the Times. “All communities matter.”

As the Times reports, the stigma that kids sometimes experience actually causes them to skip lunch rather than expose their income status. City Councilman Ben Kallos, who was raised by a single mother, and eligible for free lunch, tells the Times that he would often hide his free lunch status when he attended Bronx High School of Science.

“I had to choose between friends and food,” Mr. Kallos recounts. “I hope no child makes the same poor choices I did.”

These kind of choices are ones that no child should have to make, but emotional stress is not the only reason it is dangerous for children to skip lunch. Doing so actually has dire consequences on children’s physical well-being, and their ability to perform well in school — both of which can affect their future prospects.

“Students need healthy meals to stay focused in school, and it is a major step forward that every New York City student will have access to free breakfast and lunch every day,” says Chancellor Carmen Fariña, in a press release on the New York City Department of Education website. “Free School Lunch for All will provide financial relief to families and ensure all students are receiving nutritious meals so that they can succeed in the classroom and beyond,” Fariña adds.

The Free School Lunch for All initiative is not expected to cost the city any extra money. As the Times explains, the state recently reorganized how it tracks Medicaid recipient eligibility, linking kids with the school they attend. This new system brought to light a large batch of kids who were eligible for school lunch, which meant that the city was eligible for federal funding for universal school lunch.

New York City joins a few other major cities who have implemented such programs, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Dallas. However, New York City is by far the largest school district to adopt such an initiative.

Yup, I’m a very proud New Yorker today!

My hope is New York City will be the leader of a movement to bring free school lunch to schools across America. The fact is, 1 in 6 children in this country experience food insecurity. That’s 13 million children whose struggle each day to get enough to eat. We need to make sure these children are fed — easily, freely, and without shame. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today.

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