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Public Employee Press
Members play leading role in lunch program
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
—Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Council Speaker
All of New York City's intermediate school students in grades 6-8 are now eligible for a free hot nutritious lunch thanks to a successful citywide campaign to eliminate fees for school lunches.
A broad-based grassroots coalition of more than 75 activists and organizations that included the majority of the City Council, religious congregations and DC 37 joined Lunch 4 Learning, a campaign launched by Community Food Advocates to expand free school lunch to middle-school students without any family income requirement.
As many as 780,000 public school students are eligible for a free school lunch, but due to the social stigma associated with lining up in the cafeteria for the free meal, only 530,000 eligible students enrolled before. During a City Council hearing in March students described being mocked by their peers when lining up for what they call a "free-free." Some students skip lunch altogether because of the stigma.
"Income stigma is a major issue," said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates.
Immigrant and undocumented parents are also reluctant to fill out the required forms so that their children can participate. "Ideally that's something that we would like to eliminate also," Accles said.
Advocates say that the city would stand to gain $59 million in state and federal reimbursements if more children participated in the lunch program. "It's been needed for some time," said Local 372 President Shaun Francois. "For a lot of kids, it is their only opportunity to get a decent meal."
Along with more than a dozen members of the City Council, Public Advocate Letitia James was one of the leading supporters of the campaign.
"I supported this campaign to bring universal school lunch to New York City because I know that students who aren't battling hunger are more attentive and perform better in their classes," James said. "Thanks to the hard work of the Lunch 4 Learning campaign, we take the first steps towards universal school lunch."
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito was also on board and helped push for an additional $20 million for the program in the city's budget.
"Too many children in our city go hungry each day," she said. "Universal school lunch is an investment in our children and will ensure all students are able to eat a healthy nutritious meal."
"We don't ask families to pay for their kids' education, school buses or textbooks, and we shouldn't ask them to pay for their lunch," said City Council member Ben Kallos. Before the new program, 75 percent of the city's 1.1 million public school students qualified for a free lunch. The children of families of four with an annual income below $30,615 were entitled to a free lunch, while those whose family income was below $43,568 were eligible for a reduced price.
At PS 436 in Spring Creek, Brooklyn, School Lunch Aide and Local 372 member Bibi Bacchus, along with her colleagues Laura McRae, Charon Acevedo, Yolanda Robles and Courtney Goddard, are responsible for managing a busy kitchen that serves 600 hot meals daily, including breakfast. They are also responsible for preparing meals for the students from the charter school that shares space with PS 436.
"It's great for the kids and their parents," said Bacchus, an 18-year veteran at the Brooklyn school. "But we could use more help, too." Bacchus recalled when she had twice the amount of staff working in the kitchen with her. According to DC 37 Associate Director Henry Garrido, more help is on the way.
The implementation of the universal lunch program means that the staffing formula for kitchens will now be revised. An increase in hours, overtime and providing substitute workers is being negotiated with the Dept. of Education, Garrido said.
Those negotiations are going a lot smoother under the new administration of Mayor de Blasio. "Bloomberg operated under the do-more-with-less philosophy," Garrido said of the former billionaire mayor. DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña has endorsed the free lunch initiative.
Celebrity chefs join in
The Lunch 4 Learning campaign won the support of celebrity chefs and television hosts Rachel Ray and Tom Colicchio, from Top Chef. Colicchio is a food activist whose mother, Beverly, worked in the lunch room at a public high school in Elizabeth, N.J. In 2012 he also was the executive producer for the documentary film "A Place at the Table," which shed light on the growing problem of food insecurity in the United States.
The union is now reviewing the staffing situation at every school throughout the city to assess personnel needs in the kitchens. Members of DC 37's Local 372 work in the cafeterias and provide support services throughout the public education system. "This is an incredibly transformative moment for middle school students who will now grow up with a school lunch program," Accles said.
"This is a big step forward in making sure that all of our students get a healthy meal during lunch, regardless of their income," DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts said.