James pushes, again, for universal free lunch

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Students eat lunch. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
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Public Advocate Letitia James and some members of the City Council are continuing to push Mayor Bill de Blasio to implement universal free lunch in city schools, even after the mayor said he will not expand the program in this year's executive budget.

James, along with Council members Daniel Dromm, Andy King, Brad Lander and Ben Kallos and child hunger advocates, held a press conference outside the Department of Education headquarters on Wednesday during which they called on de Blasio to include free lunch for all city schoolchildren in the final budget. 

The city has implemented universal lunch for all city middle school students, part of a compromise with James during last year's budget process, but de Blasio said earlier this month that he wants to take another year to study the pilot program.

He also said he believes the program has had "mixed results," and has not had a significant impact on students.

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James refuted that conclusion on Wednesday, saying she was "shocked" by de Blasio's assessment of the pilot program. 

"The City Council has stepped up," James said, referring to Council support for expanding the initiative. "Now the mayor must do the same."

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito gave a statement Wednesday in support of expanding the program, and spoke in favor of the expansion during a pre-stated press conference. 

In a statement to Capital, Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for de Blasio, said the mayor's position has not changed.

"We are committed to building on the progress we have seen in last year's free lunch pilot for all students in 6th-8th grade middle schools. We are working to deepen participation in each of these schools in the coming year, and have base-lined the program's budget to ensure this program is permanently funded," Norvell said. "We appreciate the efforts and collaboration of the City Council and other elected officials, advocates and school communities to move this forward."

The Council education committee is holding a hearing on the city's executive budget on Thursday. The Council's major education priorities include free in-classroom school breakfast and additional school crossing guards.