It was a single empty box on a form that Ivellisse Nebron had dutifully filled out for the past two years in applications for her 9-year-old daughter Lisbeth’s school lunch. Despite having taken the form to work to enlist the help of the more English-proficient hairdressers in filling out each individual box, Nebron forgot to include her Social Security number. The omission was enough to warrant a call to Nebron at work, warning that her daughter would go without lunch.
The counselor at 218 Rafael Hernandez Dual Language Magnet School in the Bronx informed Nebron that, as a result, Lisbeth would not be allowed to eat lunch that day. The tie-up illustrates a common complaint about the program that provides free lunches to children in the largest school district in the nation.
Under application guidelines, Nebron was required to submit her Social Security number because she provided income information. Her daughter was to be counted among the 82.1 percent of children living on or below the poverty line who eat lunch for free, according to the school’s most recent “Demographic and Accountability Snapshot” on the New York City Department of Education Web site. “My daughter’s been a student at that school since she was in kindergarten and for them to withhold a meal that would otherwise be free is senseless,” Nebron said.
The misstep in filling out the application was the last straw for Nebron who has joined several other parents and educators in a push to change the system. “There’s a lot of red tape involved and the application tends to cause confusion among some parents, not to mention the added stress of the stigma associated with free meals,” said Roxanne Henry, Community Outreach Manager at Food Bank for New York City. Of the 1.1 million students enrolled in the New York City public school system, more than 70 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch, Henry said. “A significant number of these students don’t want to participate, because free food is associated with being poor.”
A report published by The New York Times on March 1, 2008, found that participation in the lunch program was as low as 40 percent in New York’s high schools.
“It’s not so much the case with the younger kids, but when you get to the high school level you’d be surprised by how many teens are not eating, because they don’t want other students to know that their parents can’t afford to pay,” said Agnes Molnar, co-director of Community Food Advocates in New York City.
Congress will soon debate renewal of the Child Nutrition Act, which determines school-food policy and resources. The legislation was originally passed in 1966 and must be renewed every five years. The law was up for renewal on Sept. 30, 2009, but it received a temporary extension through the Agriculture Appropriations Bill.
In advance of the coming debate, several food-advocacy groups are building support for an amendment to the legislation that would direct enough federal money to make free school lunches available to all students.
Food Bank of NYC, a member of the New York City Alliance for Child Nutrition Reauthorization, is championing the universal school meals provision claiming that “both the application process and the stigma associated with being identified as poor act as barriers to participation” in the school lunch program.
“This is not just an individual family issue anymore, it’s a community concern,” Henry said.
The coalition of food-advocacy groups is conducting a letter-writing campaign targeting city and state legislators, including Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gilibrand, to channel support for the universal school meals provision. Citing the current process as labor-intensive, inefficient and prone to inaccuracy, the organization is urging Congress to replace the application-based system with a data-driven one. As of January 2010, the Food Bank reported having received more than 1,500 petitions signed by parents from the Bronx alone.
Following federal guidelines, students are separated into three groups based on their family size and income relative to the poverty level, $18,310 for a family of three, and two earnings thresholds. Students are eligible for free lunches if their family income does not exceed the first threshold, set at 30 percent above the poverty line, or $28,803 for a family of three. Students pay full price for lunch if their family income exceeds the second threshold, 85 percent more than the poverty line, or $33,874 for a family of three. Students whose family income falls between the 30 percent benchmark and the 85 percent benchmark are eligible for discounted lunches.
Extending universal school lunches nationwide would cost roughly $12 billion, says Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College who wrote the book “Free for All: Fixing School Lunches in America,” though she cautions that this is a “back-of-the-envelope calculation.” The federal government currently spends $11 billion on lunch reimbursement, but Poppendieck said that the money could be procured through an increase in the graduated income tax. She also said that partial financing could come from the millions of dollars saved by eliminating tiered school-lunch programs. She pointed out a study of 29 schools by Community Food Advocates, which concluded that in 2006, New York City spent more than 1,000 person-hours per school to process and execute the three-tiered school-lunch program. That translated to a cost of $16,330 per school, or more than $24 million for the entire district.
“It’s so expensive, this process of determining each meal and where it fits in the categories,” she said. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
The plan to extend lunch benefits to all students also received support from the Department of Education. Eric Goldstein, who heads the food program for the Department of Education, said in a written statement that “the benefits of the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization would be a win for NYC public school students because it would help defray the costs for improved menu items that call for healthier ingredients, and it would help us to expand our universal lunch program. We have worked very hard over the past six years developing more nutritious options for both breakfast and lunch.”
Dr. Susan Rubin, a dentist and certified nutritionist, agrees that the cost of administering the current application system is high and wasteful, and could be redirected to implementing new food standards.
“We need to come up with a new paradigm and one that connects this issue directly to health care,” said Rubin, founder of the Better School Food movement turned non-profit, a proponent of universal school meals and putting better food in lunch rooms. Rubin believes that there should be a greater emphasis on providing healthier food, removing the “à la carte” option from lunch rooms that divide kids into “haves” and “have nots.”
In an open letter to parents, Rubin makes the connection between tight budgets, the need for cafeterias to make a profit for survival serving poor quality food that is “quick, cheap and profitable” and the resulting deterioration of children’s health. “Our kids are getting food that is downright dangerous,” Rubin said, “we can pay now or pay later.”