D.C. students may no longer have to worry about paying for school lunches, if one city councilman has his way.
Through Ward 4 Council member Brandon Todd’s Universal Free Lunch for All Amendment Act of 2017 introduced Tuesday, Sept. 26, both public and charter students will have the opportunity to receive free school lunches.
“As the cost of living in the District continues to rise, families find their finances increasingly pressed,” Todd said. “Many report spending upwards of $50 per student, per month on lunch.”
The bill comes in the wake of nationwide stories of “lunch shaming,” in which school officials have reportedly thrown away students’ lunches in front of their peers, stamped students’ hands, and offered them less expensive lunches or nothing at all, in order to get parents to pay outstanding lunch bills.
In response, the Department of Agriculture instructed school districts to create new policies for the 2017-2018 school year on how to treat students who have lunch debt, and Todd was quick to act.
“That is real money that can quickly add up,” Todd said. “No child deserves to go hungry or be humiliated in front of their peers because they are unable to afford lunch. By providing universal free lunch for all District students, we would end lunch shaming while giving a boost to all D.C. families.”
The bill has been co-sponsored by fellow council members Brianne Nadeau of Ward 1, Charles Allen of Ward 6, Vincent Gray of Ward 7, Trayon White of Ward 8 and At-Large members Elissa Silverman and Robert White.
“I think my colleagues on the council are receptive to this idea because it strikes at the heart of the basic idea of fairness,” Todd said. “This bill would support all students and families across the District, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status.
“It would also align D.C. with other major American cities that already offer universal free lunch for their students, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, and New York,” he said. “The District is a world-class city, and we need to have policies that reflect that. I think my colleagues and many District residents agree with that sentiment.”
The new legislation did not come without backlash from leaders of the D.C. Republican Party, however.
“The D.C. Council is at it again,” said Jose Cunningham, chairman of the D.C. GOP. “To them, the taxpayer funds they oversee are simply not real. Economically disadvantaged D.C. public school and charter school students already receive free meals — breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner — via the federally funded Title I program.
“Now a council member wants to feed every student in the city, even those from families of great wealth,” Cunningham said. “And, of course, we don’t know how much this bill costs because the D.C. Council doesn’t know, either. The D.C. Council has become a hybrid model of United Nations and the Monopoly board game, but they are playing with billions and billions of other people’s money.”
Despite the criticism, Todd stands firm that numbers add up and the legislation is fair.
“Of the students who get lunch at school, only about 25 percent have to pay for it,” he said. “The rest are covered through federal free and reduced price lunch programs. So the budgetary impacts of filling that remaining gap will be relatively limited.
“I expect that the Council Budget Office’s Fiscal Impact Statement will reflect that,” Todd said. “With the District’s finances in an extremely strong position, now is an excellent time to level the playing field and ensure that all students have equal access to healthy food at school, free of any stigma or shaming.”
His bill follows an announcement earlier this month by New York City Public Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who said that free school lunches will be available to the system’s 1.1 million students beginning this school year.
Other major cities such as Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas offer free school lunches to students as well.