Opinion

In New York City schools, no such thing as universal free lunch

By Pamela Stewart-Martinez |  

December 14, 2016 |  

(Monkey Business Images)

It is unacceptable that Mayor Bill de Blasio has not yet implemented universal free school lunch in all New York City public schools. As a mayoral candidate in 2013, de Blasio openly promised to extend this program to all students, but so far, he has not kept his word.

Last night, more than 23,600 children slept in New York City homeless shelters. It is estimated that 1 out of every 13 children in New York City public schools, either lives in a shelter, or in a location that is not their home – all record highs for the city.

For homeless children, school can be a lifesaver. It is the place where they have stability; teachers, friends and resources they can count on. For some children, it is the only place where they receive and eat regular meals. However, as the number of families in the shelter system continues to grow, and there is less capacity to accommodate each family’s geographic needs, children are moved far from their neighborhoods and transferred to multiple schools throughout the school year, depending on their shelter placement.

Moreover, over 75 percent of all children in public schools belong to families living below the federal poverty level. Of course, homeless children and children from low-income families automatically qualify for the traditional free lunch program that currently exists in most public schools. However, when children are moved from school to school, and as more New York City families are slipping through the cracks, it is impossible to guarantee, or to even expect, that all of these children be actually enrolled in the program.

It has been reported that 250,000 of the 780,000 students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals do not participate. Some children do not participate because they are simply not enrolled in the program; some children do not participate because of the stigma attached to eating school lunch, which has been negatively defined by poverty; and some children don’t participate in school lunch because their parents earn more than the federal poverty rate, but still earn too little to pay the lunch fees. All of these children go through the school day hungry.

Currently, there are schools in higher income communities throughout the city with universal free school lunch, and schools in lower income communities without it. The Department of Education is not providing equal resources to all of its students, and these resources have a direct correlation to students’ ability to academically succeed. In many cases, the application process is itself the barrier to access to food, for the children who need the most. If all schools had universal free school lunch, there would never be a question about enrollment, or a concern about family income.

This is a very personal issue for me because I was one these children.  Except in my case, my parents who raised me were frightened to fill out the school lunch form. While others were eating school lunch, I did not. It is stunning to me that 35 years later, the cycle continues. Too many children are not eating lunch for varied reasons, most beyond their control.

The Citywide Council on Special Education, where I serve as co-president, advises the Department of Education on school issues involving students with disabilities. Our work brings together parents, educators, administrators and community leaders, and provides a platform to share ideas and concerns. One thing is certain, families across this city are united in their struggle to make ends meet. For them, school needs to be a place where children get the tools they need to learn.

If all children are to succeed in school, they must be able to count on a few basic things, food is one of them. Too many children already have impossible obstacles placed in their path, and it is our job to remove them. When Mayor de Blasio took office three years ago, we believed we had a friend, a true advocate and leader in this effort. In 2017, we hope we still do.

Pamela Stewart-Martinez is the co-president of the Citywide Council on Special Education.

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