When the city announced Sept. 6 that it would be providing a “free school lunch for all” this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the program would “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.”
He added, “We know that students cannot learn or thrive in school if they are hungry all day.”
But Allen Fagin, CEO of the Orthodox Union, called the mayor’s statement “completely disingenuous” because the city is excluding Jewish day schools from the program.
“The mayor used the word ‘universal’ in saying the program would be for all school children in New York City,” he said. “The simple fact is that it is not universal because it does not cover 20 percent of the city’s school population that does not attend public schools, so it is hardly universal.”
Fagin said he has met with representatives of the mayor’s office and that they “don’t want to consider simple, creative methods of solving this. Creating a situation of equality would be easy to do, but the mayor doesn’t want to take the time or trouble or spend the dollars on a program already announced as a universal program.”
Fagin added: “The city refuses to recognize the unfairness and hides behind the fact that it would be very difficult for them to set up kosher facilities or bring in kosher food. We said it would be far simpler to allow yeshivas to handle it on their own [and reimburse them], but their response is that they are not going to do it. … Our kids deserve the same benefits that every other student in the city is receiving.”
A spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Education, Toya Holness, said in an email: “Free School Lunch for All provides free, healthy meals to all students attending schools that participate in the DOE’s School Food program, including 115 non-public schools. We welcome all non-public schools interested in participating in our program, and non-public schools also have the option of participating in federal meals reimbursement programs independently and directly. The DOE also offers daily alternative options to ensure all students have access to a nutritious meal.”
She declined to discuss the program further or answer questions.
Fagin said the federal meals reimbursement program is offered free to students whose families have an income that is below certain financial thresholds. The city’s free lunch program applies to all city public school students regardless of their family’s income. The mayor was able to do that because he “certified as eligible every public school child in New York City, regardless of income level, in a comprehensive certification process” because more than 62.5 percent of the city’s public school families meet the eligibility threshold.
The 115 private schools in the free lunch program meet those federal requirements by themselves, independent of the city, Fagin noted.
He pointed out also that although 115 nonpublic schools are in the free lunch program, there are about 450 nonpublic schools in the city with an enrollment of 250,000 students. Many of those schools are Jewish day schools and Muslim schools and because the city does not offer kosher or halal food options, they are not able to take advantage of the program.
Although neither the mayor’s office nor the Department of Education would discuss the issue, Rabbi Eric (Yitz) Frank, an Agudath Israel of America official, said he would not jump to the conclusion that the mayor is deliberately excluding yeshivas.
“I don’t know that the city couldn’t find a way to include them, but my first reaction would not be that this was a discriminatory act,” he said.
Rabbi Frank pointed out that the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program funds the free school lunch program. He said it is designed to provide meals free of charge to schools and school districts in low-income areas. It allows schools in the nation’s poorest areas to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications to determine eligibility. Instead, schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
He said the program is open to all public, private and charter schools in the country and that there are Jewish schools whose students qualify for the free lunch program. Many of these schools make their own kosher lunches and the federal government reimburses the school for those lunches. Reimbursement is on a per pupil basis.
“The federal government wants to make sure every kid gets nutritious food,” Rabbi Frank said.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York said he believes that Catholic schools in the city take advantage of the CEP program.
State Assemblyman David Weprin said he is trying to work with City Hall to include Jewish day schools in the free lunch program and has drawn up legislation that would mandate that hot kosher and halal lunches be made available to every student in the state — including those who attend public school.
He noted that he has visited public schools in which many students wear yarmulkes, and that these students “won’t eat the school’s hot meals.”
“There should be a kosher option for them,” he said. “The city is already in that business. It serves kosher meals at senior centers and at Rikers Island and elsewhere. The meals are prepackaged and similar to those served by airlines that are frozen and heated before being served.”
“I will push that legislation in Albany if we can’t get it done [administratively],” Weprin said.
He added that the city is “sympathetic” to this issue but “you are dealing with the bureaucracy of the Department of Education. … If we can get a coalition together with Allen [Fagin of the OU] and Muslim groups, we can exert political pressure to get it done. This is a federal program that is costing the city nothing.”
Rabbi Yeruchim Silver, director of New York government relations at Agudath Israel of America, said his organization supports Weprin’s proposed legislation and is looking into the city’s handling of the free lunch program.
“We acknowledge that there are certain challenges in providing kosher food, and we are in touch with the administration to work on creative solutions,” he said.
The City Council has the power to deal with this issue and Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal’s office said she is “looking into it,” according to Sean Fitzpatrick, her legislative director.
“If it’s a universal free lunch program, it has to be universal,” he said. “It was just announced and the DOE has been non-committal. We’ll be pushing them to get it right.”
Because Jewish day schools are not included in the city’s free lunch program, parents like Brooke Loewenstein, whose daughter attends second grade at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn, have to pay for their children’s lunches.
Parents order the lunches through the school’s Ladies Auxiliary, which in turn buys it from various restaurants in the neighborhood.
“Lunches cost about $6 a day or about $120 a month,” she said. “A free lunch sounds very nice for public schools and it would be nice if they did it for yeshivas. People paying for private yeshivas deserve to have free school lunch as well.”
Another parent of yeshiva students, Rhonda Malkin of Manhattan, said her two daughters attend Manhattan Day School, which provides a hot lunch the cost of which is included in the tuition.