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Push for free lunches in school reaches City Hall

Mayoral favorite Bill de Blasio is already planning to expand the city’s school lunch program, but a coalition pushing the same cause wants to hold him at his word.

Lunch 4 Learning, a coalition of 88 New York City organizations, held a press conference this morning at City Hall where advocates made their case for the benefits of free lunch for all city public school students. They said the event was to urge all of the mayoral candidates to adopt a plan that would tap into little-used state and federal resources.

“Offering free and healthy school lunch to all students will eliminate the stigma that labels the meals ‘poor kids food’ and will get more students participating,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, the organization that is leading the charge on the campaign.

The extra meals, which would provide daily breakfast and lunch to 120,000 more students, costs $79 million and would be split up between the city, state and federal governments. The majority — $59 million — would get reimbursed through state and federal funding and city would pay $20 million to make up the difference between reimbursements and the total food costs.

Three in four students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch meals, which are currently funded federally under the Title I program. The subsidized meals are eligible to families of at least three earning less than $36,131 in annual income.

But a smaller rate of students participate in the free lunch program and the numbers drop significantly in the older grades, a statistic that advocates illustrate the fear a student has of being labeled poor as he grows older.

De Blasio, who has a 40-percentage point lead in recent polls, agrees with the coalition and has outlined a version of its free lunch proposal in his policy book. The proposal would take advantage of a new federal law that allows school districts to replace an paper-based application with an online data system that doesn’t require families to identify themselves as poor.

Advocates said the proposal would have academic benefits that go beyond merely feeding the hungry.

“As educators, we believe our goal is to educate every student, regardless of income or ability,” said Ernest Logan, president of the city principals union. “It’s nearly impossible to adequately educate children who are hungry.”

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