Bronx community activist Pamela Stewart-Martinez is “over the moon” about the city’s new policy change
Now there really is such a thing as a free lunch.
Lunch is finally free for all 1.1 million New York City public school students, officials announced Wednesday — a result of the city securing eligibility for a federal meal-service option for low-income schools by identifying eligible students through a new data-matching system.
Though about three in four students already qualified for free lunch, at least 200,000 more will now benefit under the Free School Lunch for All initiative. (Breakfasts had been available for free, but full-price lunches cost $1.75.) The initiative takes pressure off kids reluctant to sign up due to stigma or unwilling to eat for fear of being bullied, advocates say — not to mention their cash-strapped parents.
“It’s something that is changing decades of policy that had separated children in the cafeteria and marked kids by their income, prevented kids from eating and put pressure on parents who couldn’t afford to pay the fees,” Liz Accles, executive director of the nonprofit Community Food Advocates, told Moneyish. “This is completely transformative moment in the school lunch program in New York City.”
Among the ecstatic parents was Pamela Stewart-Martinez, a Bronx community activist and mom of seven whose family struggles to pay bills and hasn’t been eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in years.
“I’m actually over the moon, to be quite honest,” Stewart-Martinez, who served on the Lunch 4 Learning advocacy campaign’s Parent Caucus and last year launched an unsuccessful State Assembly bid, told Moneyish. “You see a problem in your community, you work together with a group of people on the problem, you bring it to the attention of legislators, and you keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it until they finally listen — and then something amazing happens. Problem solved.”
Stewart-Martinez and her tech-consultant husband have two children in public school — a daughter in eighth grade at MS 101 and a son in 12th grade at Harry S. Truman High School — along with a son in third grade and daughter in 11th grade at Harlem Village Academy Charter School. She also has a 20-year-old son attending a private university, a 21-year-old daughter who graduated private college in May and a 25-year-old son in the Air National Guard.
Yet their family size and household income, which Stewart-Martinez declined to disclose, haven’t put them within the USDA’s free-lunch eligibility guidelines in around 15 years — and haven’t qualified them for reduced-price in about five or six. She and her husband made more money over time, but their brood grew both in number and expenses incurred, she said. “Every year that they tell me that I don’t qualify for free lunch or even reduced lunch, I’m always amazed,” Stewart-Martinez said, especially accounting for having six children aside from her military son, two kids attending college last year with a “bare minimum” of financial aid, and New York rent to boot.
“They always seem to forget about the people who don’t quite fit in that category of what they feel is who can afford what — they don’t look at college; they don’t look at other expenses,” she said. “It really is a struggle to keep your head above water and pay all of the bills.”
Some fellow public and charter school parents avoid showing their faces at school because they’re behind on payment, she added: “They’re too embarrassed to even go into the school because the principals, the parent coordinators — they become your bill collectors.”
Stewart-Martinez has personal experience going hungry as a New York schoolkid: After bouncing between foster homes and stints with a biological mom who abandoned her in the hospital, the couple she came to call her parents — not yet her legal guardians — ultimately enrolled her at Harlem’s Wadleigh Junior High School “under the radar.” The family couldn’t afford school lunch, and fear of child-services scrutiny kept them from filling out a free or reduced lunch form.
And so her mother would send her to school armed with cold leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Eventually, she lied to her mom that she’d “worked things out with the school.” “And then when I would get to school, me and my friends would be in the lunchroom and they would say, ‘Pam, why aren’t you eating?’ ‘Oh, I’m not hungry.’ But I would really, really be hungry.” Once school let out, she raced home.
“I loved the public school system; I loved everything it did for me,” she said. “But the one blemish in the whole (thing) was the fact that I couldn’t eat lunch.”
The policy transformation — enacted the day before city schools opened, and well after major but less-populous cities like Boston, Dallas and Detroit instituted their own — is a “completely transformative moment in the school lunch program in New York City,” Accles marveled.
“It impacts 1.1 million students at this moment … and it will impact for decades to come,” she said. “How many million kids who won’t have to face that and will be able to eat lunch as just a normal thing?”
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