Budget office examines free school lunch expansion cost

The cost of expanded free lunch services in public schools can depend on federal legislation, the IBO says.
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Amid calls to expand the free lunch program to all students in New York City’s public schools, an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office found the costs of expanding the program could be as much as $23 million, and changes to federal policy could endanger it further.

Advocates for expanding the city’s free-lunch program maintain that a universal program could help stop any stigma that may cause students to avoid taking lunches. The city launched a pilot program several years ago in 185 middle schools, and the IBO analyzed the 2014 school year to extrapolate the cost of enlarging its reach.

Free lunch programs are partially subsidized by federal funding and consist of several different possible programs, all in use in New York City schools. The federal government reimburses the city $3.24 for all free lunches served, which is less than the cost to the city. Approximately one million students in the city benefit from free lunch, breakfast and other food service programs.

Schools can also use Universal School Meals and the Community Eligibility Program, alternatives to the traditional model that shift the eligibility criteria to schools as opposed to individual students. Eligibility in CEP is determined by whether the student or his or her family is eligible for food stamps, cash assistance or Medicaid. If the number of such students is higher than 40 percent in a given school, it can enroll in CEP.

The DOE estimated the annual cost of the 2014 pilot program at $49 million, with the federal government reimbursing $39 million. If citywide participation rates did not change from the pilot program rates, about 141,870 students would participate in a free K-5 lunch program citywide which would cost about $103 million per year, according to the IBO.

The IBO determined federal funding would remain the same whether schools used the traditional model or Universal School Meals, though estimated federal reimbursement would be slightly higher through the Community Eligibility Program.

The net cost to the city would be the lowest by using the traditional model, at $31.5 million, although the IBO said CEP would be the most cost-effective approach due to reduced paperwork and other benefits.

Sustained federal funding of the CEP is endangered by new legislation that would transform program funding into a “block grant,” a set amount of money that might not cover actual program costs, according to the IBO.

“If funding does not keep pace with growth in costs and local demand, school districts would be faced with the choice of contributing additional funding from other sources or reducing the scale of the programs,” the report said.

The full report is available at

Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

Updated 6:29 am, February 23, 2017
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Reader feedback

parents should pay more from queens says:
Instead of sending money home to relatives, buying expensive cell phones, TVs, leather jackets, etc the parents should contribute to their child's food. What a novel concept, parents taking care of their children. Wow, hope is catches on....
Feb. 23, 2017, 9:04 am
queens mom from bayside says:
I doubt there is any kind of stigma that causes kids to avoid eating lunch but it is totally unnecessary given the existing technology. My child went to middle school in district 26 several years ago. No money was needed to pay for lunch back then and I can't see why things shouldn't be even more advanced now. The kids all swiped id cards when they paid for lunch. Money was put on the card either at a kiosk or by the parent at home and refilled the same way as necessary. the only person who knew if the students were free lunch or paying was the cashier. the kids couldn't tell. Every student swiped their card the same. No stigma.
Feb. 23, 2017, 9:52 pm
stigma not the point from queens says:
The point is not the stigma, the point is why are these parents refusing to feed their children. Many have off the books income from activities such as child care but on the books income is low so they get free food.
Feb. 24, 2017, 10:21 am

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