A free-lunch coalition tries to make school meals a mayoral issue

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Tish James, Liz Krueger and Robert Jackson. (Eliza Shapiro)
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On the steps of City Hall this morning, an education advocacy group held a rally that had nothing to do with universal pre-kindergarten or charter schools.

The Lunch 4 Learning campaign, comprised of 85 advocacy organizations, gathered supporters and a handful elected officials to urge the next mayor to enact a free lunch plan for all students, regardless of income, immediately after taking office.

"Year after year, decade after decade, we couldn't get this done, because we had the wrong mayors," said state senator Liz Krueger.

The current candidates for mayor have talked a lot about public education in recent weeks, with lots of questions about the viability of Bill de Blasio's universal pre-K plan, and a strong defense of charter schools from Joe Lhota.

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But school lunches haven't exactly been a hot topic for discussion.

According to Lunch 4 Learning, universal school meals would serve an additional 120,000 students, and would create about 1,000 new jobs. The cost would be about $20 per student, per year, or about $20 million, which Krueger called a "tiny" expenditure for the Department of Education. The group estimates such a program would generate $59 million in increased federal and state revenue from student participation. 

Advocates say universal free meals, regardless of income, will also eliminate the stigma of poverty that leaves many children unwilling or ashamed to eat their free meals, and will provide healthier food for all students. 

Currently, about 68 percent of New York City's public school population is eligible for free meals based on their annual household income, according to Lunch 4 Learning. The income cut-off for free meals is $25,389 for a household of three; the cut-off for reduced-price meals is $36,131. 

De Blasio's education plan includes a proposal "to make free school lunch available to all public school children at most city schools" by taking advantage of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which would would also "allow students to eat free of charge and free of stigma."

"Bill de Blasio and I have discussed this idea and I know he'll support it," said Letitia James, the Democratic nominee for public advocate, at the rally. "Children don't have lobbies or powerful interest groups, they can only rely on us." (De Blasio and James recently offered each other a mutual endorsement.)

A spokeswoman for the Lhota campaign did not respond to requests for comment about his stance on free school meals.

Liz Accles, the executive director of Lunch 4 Learning, said her group has had preliminary discussion with de Blasio's aides about the proposal, and has not yet heard from the Lhota campaign. 

Lunch 4 Learning says it has collected over 4,000 signatures on a petition to urge the next mayor to enact the free meals plan.