One Year Later: A Look at New York City Public Schools’ Free Lunch Program

by Gabrielle Khalife
Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series

Policy Name: Free School Lunch for All Program


New York City, NY

Population: 8.6 Million (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017)


Beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, lunch has been free for all students who attend a NYC Public School. The Free School Lunch for All program allows 100 percent of students to be eligible, irrespective of income, providing an additional 200,000 students with free lunch. The program serves to provide financial relief to families and ensure that all students are receiving healthy, nutritious meals to stay focused in school.

Progress to date:

On September 6, 2017, NYC Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, announced that school lunch would be available free of charge to all public school students beginning with the 2017-2018 school year.

Program/Policy Initiated: September 7, 2017

Food policy category: Food Insecurity / Food Security

Program goals: To ensure equality amongst all students and provide nutritious meals that help students to thrive in the classroom and beyond.

How it works:

With a new tracking system that matches families eligible for benefits like Medicaid to the schools their children attend, the city was able to identify enough students whose families receive those benefits to make the whole city eligible for a federal program that pays for universal free lunch. The funds come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision, which gives money to low-income school districts for student meals. Because of this, the new program is not expected to cost the city any more money. However, all parents, regardless of income, must complete a Schools Meals Form in order for the schools to access that federal funding.

Nutrition standards for all free meals meet the USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals, ensuring that students receive the nutrients they need to think clearly, concentrate on learning and perform better in class. Click here for a list of prohibited ingredients.

Why it is important:

Hunger is the foe of education. Children who are malnourished get sick more often and miss school more often than children who are well-fed. Studies have demonstrated that hunger leads to restlessness, irritability, and withdrawal, interfering with a child’s ability to learn, thrive and flourish in the classroom. Even short-term hunger can interfere with a child’s ability to concentrate and is associated with an increased likelihood that the child will act out during class. In fact, according to the book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, a reduction in disciplinary referrals is the single most consistently reported result of universal breakfast programs. Breakfast is already provided free of charge in NYC Public Schools. Adding free lunch meals is a critical first step in supporting student health and academic success.

The Free School Lunch for All program is a result of a strong push by food policy advocates, who have found that some students would rather skip a meal and go hungry than admit they can’t afford to pay for lunch. By offering free lunch to all students, NYC Public Schools are taking a major step towards ending the shame and stigma often associated with free or reduced-price school meals.

Evaluation: The NYC Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood is responsible for enforcement and evaluation.

Learn more:

Point of Contact:


44-36 Vernon Boulevard

Long Island City, NY 11101

T: (718) 707- 4300


Similar practices: Along with New York, other major cities including Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas are also offering free lunch to all students.

As part of the Every Child, Every Chance: The Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan of 2018-2022, Scotland began to provide lunch during school holidays for low-income students. The policy aims to tackle “holiday hunger” – when parents struggle to feed their children during the 175 days a year that they aren’t in school – by offering them access to free school meals 365 days a year. Learn more.


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