When the New York City Department of Education announced in September that all public school students will now receive free lunch, it joined a growing number of cities around the country trying to ease food insecurity and end the phenomenon of “lunch shaming.”
Previously about three-quarters of the city’s 1.1 million public school students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, but many didn’t participate, often because parents hadn’t completed necessary forms, or the student wanted to avoid the social stigma associated with receiving free meals.
New York’s program also no longer requires any paperwork from parents.
“This is about equity,” said New York Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña when the program was announced. “We’re erasing all the terrible history of the school food program—not just in New York City, but nationally—that has divided children by income.”
Large cities such as Boston, Detroit and Baltimore already take advantage of the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows districts in low-income areas to serve free breakfast and lunch to students without collecting household applications.
Reimbursement uses a formula relying on the percentage of students eligible for free meals based on participation in other programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Qualifying for CEP
Until this summer, New York failed to meet the eligibility requirements to participate in CEP.
“The cutoff to be eligible was too low for communities like New York City,” says Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, and the author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.
To qualify for subsidized lunch, family incomes had to be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($45,510 for a family of four).
While 75 percent of the city’s students do fall into that category, others, whose family incomes are slightly higher, couldn’t be included.
“In many high cost-of-living communities, you have a group of students who don’t have the cash to buy the lunch—even though it’s a bargain—but whose families are not eligible for the free and reduced price,” Poppendieck explains. “Those are students who are helped immediately.”
Finding CEP resources
Poppendieck says other districts and schools should consider the CEP. States are required each summer to list the schools that are eligible to use community eligibility on a website.
“The state office of education is equipped to tell them whether their individual school is eligible for the program,” she says. “They’ll never have to collect another school lunch debt.”