In an effort to make a final push to the city, celebrity chef Rachael Ray has joined forces with the Lunch 4 Learning campaign to provide all students with free lunch, despite their family's income.
The daytime cooking show host officially launched a petition via Change.org calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to make lunch free at all city public schools in hopes of bringing an end to bullying, income stigma and food insecurity children face.
An estimated 75 percent of the city’s 1.1 million public school children have family incomes low enough to be eligible for free or reduced priced school lunch — below $37,000 for a household of three — but many choose to sit out of it because they have either been ridiculed or fear being singled out by peers.
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"All students should have access to a nutritious school lunch. If students don’t receive the fuel they need to power through the day, how can we expect them to learn and thrive?" Ray said. "I believe all children should have access to a nutritious school lunch without regard to income. Children simply cannot learn on an empty belly."
The petition — which has since garnered over 27,800 supporters — is an effort together with the Lunch 4 Learning campaign spearheaded by Community Food Advocates, which has been pushing the mayor to expand universal free lunch since 2014.
The campaign has since united over 200 organizational and elected supporters including teachers, principals and students — all behind the idea that lunch should be provided for free to students.
Cities such as Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and others have already implemented the universal lunch program.
During de Blasio’s 2014 budget season, the mayor provided funds to offer students in stand alone middle schools, which only include sixth to eighth grade, with free lunches.
However, according to Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, the mayor has not gone through with a promise he made when campaigning for office in 2013 when he called universal free lunch “crucial” for students.
According to Aja Worthy-Davis, spokeswoman for the mayor's office, following the extension of the city's universal free lunch program at the middle schools, the city expanded school breakfast programs in elementary schools in the fiscal year 2016 budget.
"The mayor strongly believes that no child should go to school hungry, and that low income and food insecurity should not create a barrier to learning," Worthy-Davis said.
Accles added that the goal of the campaign is not to only eliminate the poverty stigma that comes with the way the lunch system is structured at public schools, but also help families that essentially don’t qualify for free lunch but still can’t afford to pay for the meals.
“There are many kids that are just above the income and you can be significantly above the cutoff and you can be in a family struggling for basic needs,” Accles said.
Accles added that the petition is the last big push during this year’s budget cycle to raise awareness of the need for universal free lunch and she hopes — through the help of Ray and other supporters — it will put pressure on the administration when it meets next week to discuss the budget.
“Children are supposed to get all services regardless of their income,” she said. “And this is really an opportunity for the mayor to transform the school lunch experience for all children.”
The city's Department of Education said it will continue to monitor the universal lunch program at the schools currently offering it to their students.
"We must ensure students have access to nutritious meals, and that hunger never serves as a hindrance to learning in school. Universal free lunch was expanded and now includes all 6-8 stand-alone middle schools and District 75 schools for students with special needs," said Toya Holness, DOE spokeswoman. "We are committed to ensuring our students receive healthy meals in school, and will continue to monitor this program."