Posted on April 11, 2014

Free-for-All in the Cafeteria

Editorial Board, New York Times, April 10, 2014

More than a million children attend public schools in New York City. About 780,000 of them are poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Getting into the program requires some paperwork, which is a burden but not a terrible one; the application is just one page. So why do so many eligible children–about 250,000–not participate?

The problem, advocates for schoolchildren say, isn’t so much aversion to the menu–today across the city, it’s roast turkey, stewed beans, sweet plantains and an oatmeal raisin cookie (plus chickpea salad, for high schoolers)–as it is the embarrassment and bullying that come from being identified as poor, from being seen taking the “free-free,” the derisive nickname New York schoolchildren give to subsidized lunches.

A stigma is an anecdotal phenomenon, but advocates say it’s real, pervasive and borne out by school-lunch participation rates, which plummet as children get older. It’s 81 percent in elementary school, 61 percent in middle school and 38 percent in high school. Many teenagers, it seems safe to assume, would rather go hungry or eat junk from vending machines than get caught in the wrong line for turkey and beans.

Here is where you would expect to hear a conservative’s bootstrap lecture telling poor kids to brown-bag it or suck it up. But the more realistic and understanding response would be to find other ways to encourage children to take the food they’re eligible for.

Here’s one we like: Make lunches free. For everyone. The city should stop collecting lunch money and pay what it takes to eliminate the “free-free” stigma.

A coalition of advocacy groups and elected officials in the city is pushing this idea. They argue that for a minuscule investment in universal free lunches–about $20 million in a $25 billion annual schools budget–the city would increase participation by 20 percent, or 120,000 meals a day.