There is such thing as a free lunch after all—and more than a million kids in New York City are finding that out this week.
The chancellor for New York City public schools has announced that beginning this school year, they're offering free school lunch to all 1.1 million students. About three-quarters of NYC's public school students already qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. But with this new system, 200,000 more kids will be reached and families will save roughly $300 a year. The cost of lunch was $1.75 per day, and breakfast in all NYC public schools is already free for all.
The move isn't expected to cost the city additional money and is part of a federal program that allows high-poverty schools and districts to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students (no matter the family's income). While families normally have to fill out paperwork to receive free and reduced-price meals, this program eliminates that requirement.
New York City is joining other public school systems—including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, and Houston—that have made the same move to universal free school lunch. As a dietitian and a mom, I'm behind this 100 percent. Not surprisingly, so are many NYC parents.
"It's a win for everyone," says Marlowe Bamberger, a Tribeca mom whose kids are in 6th and 9th grades. "Young kids aren't singled out or shamed, kids whose families have the means to pay can use those funds to donate in other ways to their schools, and it even offers the kids some confidence at a young age to want school lunch rather than 'have to have it.'"
The reality is that many children depend on school food every day—and in some cases, it may be the only food they get. But some of those students may end up going hungry. Someone in the household may have forgotten to fill out the paperwork, or there might be a language barrier in the home that makes it hard. There might be a stigma at the school about getting free or reduced-price lunches, and kids feel like they have to choose between eating or feeling embarrassed in front of their classmates. There's also the very real problem of "lunch shaming," where kids are singled out (or in some cases, even punished) for unpaid lunch tabs.
Universal free lunch puts students on a level playing field in the cafeteria, where everyone can get the nourishment they need no matter what. We can't expect children to focus and learn when they're hungry, and eating lunch should never be a hard choice kids have to make--or a luxury reserved for certain students. Let's hope more districts follow this lead.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.