America’s largest public school system is offering free lunches for students regardless of family income. In New York City’s public schools, 75 percent of students enrolled already qualify for free lunches -- which is one of the highest rates of participation in the whole country.

Advocates for free lunch contend that some children suffer teasing for not being able to pay the full rate of $1.75 per lunch and thus may choose not to eat. Also, there have been reports that some schools practice what is known as “lunch shaming”: the practice of hold kids publicly accountable for cafeteria-meal debts and sometimes making an example by scraping the contents of their lunch trays into the garbage.

City officials say that the free lunches will not cost taxpayers any more money than they are already paying. When the State of New York recently developed a more accurate means of tracking eligible families, New York City officials understood that they had failed to count students from those families. Therefore, the difference officials found was enough for all of the city’s students to qualify for federal assistance to pay for universal free lunch. Free lunch will thus be provided to 200,000 more students and save their parents about $300 this year.

New York City also provides free after-school snacks, and meals during the summer months.

Parents and guardians have been instructed by the NYC Department of Education to fill out an online form December 29, 2017. Those who had already contributed money in a school lunch account will receive refunds. School officials have stressed that the forms should be filled out so that NYC can receive additional federal funds. 

Until the recent decision, those families earning at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($45,510 for a family of four) qualified for subsidized lunch. Therefore, 75 percent of the city’s students qualified under that old standard. With the free lunch program, school officials predict that an additional 29,000 additional students getting lunch each day: a 3.4 percent increase.

Across the United States, of the 5,052,222,946 school lunches served in Fiscal Year 2016, 73.3 percent of them -- the highest percentage on record -- were either free or reduced price meals, according to the USDA. Free lunches comprised 66.6 percent of all lunches served in that school year; and reduced-price lunches comprised 6.7 percent. Students paid full price for the remaining 26.7 percent in Fiscal 2016, the latest year for which data is available. Fiscal Year 2016 comprises the 12-month period beginning in October 2015 and running through September 2016, and roughly coincides with the 2015-2016 school year.

The percentage of free or reduced price meals served in public and non-profit private schools has risen in each of the last nine years, from 59.3 percent in Fiscal Year 2007 to 73.3 percent in FY 2016, according to the USDA. Families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible to receive free meals for their children. Those with incomes between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced price meals. In FY 2016, 31,168,859 students participated in the federal government's school lunch program. That number is high but not a record. However, with New York City leading the way, that number may be expected to increase. In 2012, the federal lunch program cost $15 billion in tax payer money.

In order to provide the free lunches, New York City enrolled in the federal government's Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the USDA, which allows school districts or individual schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all enrolled students if at least 40 percent of those students already are enrolled in other welfare programs. “We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a news release. “Free school lunch will  not only ensure that every kid in New York City has the fuel they need to succeed but also further our goal of providing an excellent and equitable education for all students.”

The Community Eligibility Provision, now operating in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam, was authorized by Congress as a part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

A USDA fact sheet said the program benefits "everyone." The fact sheet says that schools enrolled in CEP will no longer have to collect and verify household applications to determine students' eligibility for school meal programs, nor will they have to keep track of how many meals are free, reduced price, or paid. CEP also allows "streamlined meal service" in school cafeterias, where students will have more time to eat because they don't have to wait in line at the cashier.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was signed into law by Barack Obama in December 2010. The bill passed in the Senate unopposed. In the House of Representatives, it occasioned some opposition: 153 Republicans and 4 Democrats voted against it. The measure passed. Senators Charles Schumer, (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY) pushed for Greek yogurt, much of which is manufactured in Utica, NY, to be included in the regulations determining acceptable proteins to be served at school.

Among those who benefited is Chobani -- a yogurt manufacturing business owned by a Muslim native of Turkey, Hamdi Ulukaya. Billionaire Ulukaya is the founder of the Tent Foundation and is an advocate of employing refugees. He has been associated with Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton Foundation, as well as investor Warren Buffet. He has yogurt production facilities in Utica NY and Twin Falls ID.

Named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential business people in the world, Ulukaya enjoys close relations with Democratic notables. For example, Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy said at the opening of a Chobani bar in the Big Apple that he eats the yogurt everyday, saying: “It really is the best Greek yogurt in the country.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also offers the item as the home state treat at her Senate office. Chobani yogurt has been on the menu of the federal lunch program since 2014, thanks to Gillibrand. 

Ulukaya is no stranger to government largesse: it was an $800,000 below-market loand from the federal government's Small Business Administration that allowed him to open a shuttered dairy plant in New York State. And when New York's dairy industry was losing ground, Sen. Schumer introduced the National Dairy Equity Act (NDEA) in 2006 in order to subsidize New York dairy farmers to the tune of $93 million annually. The overproduction was to Ulukaya's benefit because the Greek-style yogurt produced by his company requires four times the amount of milk to make an ounce of Greek yogurt as regular producers need to make non-Greek yogurt at already artificially lower prices. 

Later, in 2014, Schumer was essential in passing the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, and pushing for Greek yogurt. Schumer worked with the pro-refugee Ulukaya to pressure the USDA. In addition, Chobani spent at least $80,000 on lobbyists. That year, Chobani got a $750 million loan from San Antonio-based TPG Capital, which has strong ties to the Clinton Global Initiative and JP Morgan Chase. The head of JP Morgan Chase at the time was David Bonderman: one of the donors involved with a program that took $2 million in donations to the party and passed them over to Bill Clinton's campaign. 



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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