food services

As budgets are cut, advocates push for continued free lunch

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City Councilman Brad Lander speaks at a rally today to oppose school lunch cuts. (<em>Courtesy: Lander's office</em>)<br />

Last month, city officials announced a plan to save $3 million by reducing the number of students receiving free lunch next year. Today, elected officials and child advocates struck back from the steps of City Hall.

The group was arguing that the city’s plan to end the practice at some schools of providing free lunch to all students, not just those who fill out forms proving their need, could force some hungry students go unfed.

“For many low-income kids, universal free lunches are depended-upon meals,” Councilwoman Letitia James said in a statement. “We all know that children need nutrients and nourishment to best process information throughout the day. Cutting universal free lunches would, in effect, be impairing children’s ability to learn. This is not an acceptable proposal.”

The city has said it expects to save $24 million in total by changing its school lunch program. Other changes include reducing the number of hot options at all schools and cutting 276 food service employees.

Press Release: Council Members and Advocates Rally to Save Free & Healthy Lunches in City Schools

New York, NY – New York City Council Members, along with food and public education advocates, called today for the restoration of proposed cuts to NYC’s School Food program, so that low-income kids don’t go hungry, and all kids have healthy choices. In particular, council members and advocates called for the restoration of $3 million to prevent the elimination of nearly 100 schools from the Universal School Meals program, which insures that all kids in predominantly low-income schools receive free lunches, and has been shown to improve health, nutrition, and academic achievement.

The NYC Department of Education, which has a budget of over $18 billion, has proposed substantial cuts to the School Food program: eliminating the Universal School Meals program in nearly 100 schools, and reducing the number of hot lunch options available in all schools (from 2 to 1 in elementary schools, from 3 to 2 in middle and high schools).

Under the Universal School Meals program, participating schools are able to offer students free breakfast and lunch regardless of their income, residency, or citizenship status. Filling out the necessary forms to qualify for free or reduced lunch is a barrier to many families that could benefit from these programs. The Universal School Meals program gives schools and their children access to healthy, nutritious meals while reducing the paperwork and simplifying the logistics of operating school meals programs. Providing free school meals universally within a school system has been shown to increase the likelihood that the meals are eaten, therefore improving children’s eating habits and their overall attention and ability to learn. Schools that provide universal breakfast in the classroom report decreases in discipline and psychological problems, decreases in visits to school nurses and tardiness, increases in student attentiveness and attendance, and generally improved learning environments.

“A strong public school food program – with universal free meals in low-income schools, and healthy food choices for all kids — is essential to keeping kids healthy and making sure they can learn,” said Councilmember Brad Lander. “This is a small investment in our children’s future when considering the vast improvement in academic performance and overall well-being it promotes.”

“Balancing the budget on the bellies of hungry students is just plain cruel,” stated Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee. “America is still one of the world’s wealthiest nations.  During these widespread hard times, the least we can do is feed our children. Hungry children can’t learn — what is DOE thinking?”

“Schools often serve as the primary or only source of balanced meals for our city’s youth,” said Councilmember Gale A. Brewer. “Unfortunately, many low-income students each day decide to forego school meals in order to avoid being identified as a reduced cost or free lunch student. The Universal School Meals system ensures students are not stigmatized and increases their likelihood to participate in school meals. In order to save $20-50 million in city tax levy funds, the city risks losing significant portions of the $350 million it receives in federal reimbursement dollars and depriving thousands of low income students of a nutritious meal.”

“The Universal Free Lunch Program eliminates the paperwork and stigmatic barriers to access for children who cannot normally afford to eat at school. There is nothing more important than our children’s education — shame on us if we fail to make it a top priority,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

“For many low-income kids, universal free lunches are depended-upon meals,” stated Council Member Letitia James. “We all know that children need nutrients and nourishment to best process information throughout the day. Cutting universal free lunches would, in effect, be impairing children’s ability to learn. This is not an acceptable proposal.”

Said Joel Berg, Executive Director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, “At a time when we all know it is in our self interest to fight child hunger, reduce obesity, and improve test scores, it is absurdly counterproductive to cut funding for a program that accomplishes all three of those things.”

“The movement to improve school food has been one of the most vibrant movements in many years.  Parents care about what their kids eat — they want healthy, appealing food for all our kids — and they are willing to organize for that,” said Nancy Romer, the General Coordinator for the Brooklyn Food Coalition. “As the most effective program to keep kids healthy and avoid obesity and its effects, school food should expand to provide more fresh fruits and veggies, not contract. School food is our collective offering to youngsters: it tells them what we believe about food. These cuts tell our kids that we don’t care about their health, that we won’t protect them from budget cuts. We shouldn’t jeopardize our kids’ health when taxing higher incomes at higher rates, among many other possible revenue raising initiatives, that could easily balance the budget and not take healthy food out of our kids’ mouths.”

“For our children to be able to concentrate, learn, and be productive in school, they need a hot meal so they are not hungry during the school day,” said Daysi Cuevas, a parent leader at Make the Road New York. “The Universal School Meal is an important program that helps thousands of needy families and we ask the Mayor not to cut this program.”

“The American Heart Association believes all New York City school children should have access to healthy and nutritious school meals,” stated Stephanie Chan, a survivor of heart disease and volunteer spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “Our schools should model appropriate healthy behaviors by promoting the availability of a nutritious meal during the school day. The Universal School Meals Program here in New York City makes great strides toward this goal as it reduces the barriers to these free meals. The last thing we would want to see happen is for our young people to choose unhealthy, less expensive options. On behalf of the American Heart Association, I applaud the efforts the Council Members to remove these cuts to such an important program.”

“The pennies that the city may save on meals will be overshadowed by the dollars spent administering the complicated school meal application process,” stated Áine Duggan, Vice President for Research, Policy & Education at the Food Bank For New York City.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.