New York City public schools open today, and for its 1.1 million students, school lunch will now be free of charge. Carmen Fariña, the city's schools chancellor, announced the news Wednesday. "This is about equity," she said in a Hell's Kitchen elementary school cafeteria, "all communities matter."
Other major cities including Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas also provide free lunch to all students, yet New York City is home to the largest school district in the United States. Implementing a universal free-lunch policy would aid approximately 200,000 families, saving each one of them an estimated $300 a year, The New York Times reported. Already, 75 percent of New York City public school students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
School lunch fees can be a huge burden for cash-strapped families and often the lines between those who qualify for free or subsidized lunches and those who don't have been arbitrary. Nationwide, school lunches cost approximately $1.75 per day per student. For children from economically disadvantaged families (or families with multiple children in public schools) even this low price barrier can mean having to skip lunch altogether.
Students in these situations often find themselves subjected to lunch shaming from their peers. The shame involved in taking free lunches is so pronounced that families that qualify for assistance may not fill out the paperwork necessary to receive aid. The city's "Free Lunch for All" program would eliminate such barriers and stigmas.
In a statement, the New York City Department of Education explained that funding for the free lunch program will come via reimbursement from the federal government through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The New York State Education Department introduced a new data system this school year to "identify families eligible for free lunch," in a process similar to Medicaid. "This new matching system provides a more efficient and accurate process for matching students across a range of forms that families already complete," the statement said, and it was this increase that allowed the city to qualify for the highest level of reimbursement through the CEP.
"We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in the statement. "Free school lunch will not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students."