When city education officials got a waiver from the federal government in late October for permission to serve lunch for free to all public school children as a way to ease some of the trauma wrought by Hurricane Sandy, the move was lauded as both humanitarian and good educational policy.

And when the New York City Department of Education (DOE) applied for a second waiver in November to extend the free lunch program for the month of December, child advocates and food nutritionists started to hold their collective breath. Would the DOE see the possibilities inherent in making all the meals free—like feeding hungry kids, getting more children to buy in to new, healthier menus and realizing the benefits of having fully fed and focused children in the classroom?

For now, the DOE's not saying. Advocates are waiting. And kids are eating; at least, some are.

If participation in the school lunch program goes up, advocates say, the benefits for everyone involved could be long lasting. Not only would it significantly reduce the stress on working families, it could also finally end the stigma of getting "free" food at school. If everyone has access to lunch, the logic goes, then no one will feel singled out for being poor.

Encouraging children to eat in school is just good policy, says Agnes Molnar, co-director of Community Food Advocates and a driving force behind the city's decision to make breakfast free for all students in 2003. Since New York City started offering free breakfasts, the number of kids eating breakfast in school has doubled. And the results for students have been enormously positive, she says. "They do better on tests. They come. They're not late," Molnar says. "It was a no brainer" for the school system to implement.

But there's more the DOE could do, advocates say, to get more children on board for breakfast, as well as lunch.

No free lunch

In a 2011 study done by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) ranking 26 school districts nationwide on student participation in school breakfast, New York City came in dead last. Newark, which ranked No. 1 on the survey, has more than 70 percent of students eating breakfast in school. Of the roughly 900,000 children in the New York public school system, only 23 percent of them eat breakfast at school. While three-quarters of New York City students are eligible for a free or reduced price lunch, only 34 percent of those students also ate breakfast.

Getting more kids to eat is not a simple proposition for the school system. Trying to plan meals, exchange enrollment paperwork with parents, estimate the number of children who will eat, prepare food and file all the documents needed to ensure federal reimbursement is an enormously time-consuming task for the DOE.

Advocates say the job would be made easier if all meals were free. But it wouldn't be costless.

According to data supplied to the Independent Budget Office from the DOE, in school year 2011-2012, the city on an average day served 492,795 free lunches (reaching 68 percent of eligible low-income children); 51,526 reduced-price lunches (reaching 56 percent of eligible children), and 97,915 full-price lunches (reaching 39 percent of eligible children).

Right now, the DOE charges $1.50 for a full-price lunch and 25 cents for a reduced-price lunch. According to DOE spokesperson Marge Feinberg, each lunch actually costs the DOE $2.55. The DOE clears a small profit on free lunches because the feds reimburse the city $2.94 for each free meal, and also stays in the black on reduced-price lunches, which are reimbursed at a rate of $2.54 a meal, according to the USDA. For full-price lunches, however, DOE receives only 35 cents per meal from the feds, meaning a 70-cent loss for every lunch.

Benefits to going universal

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed in his Fiscal Year 2013 budget to raise the price of a full-fare meal by $1 to address this shortfall. But food advocates say the long-term benefits of having a well-fed student population outweigh the money the DOE would recoup with the additional $1 per full price meal.

Raising the cost of a full price lunches is "pennywise and pound foolish," maintains Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander. The change would mean that working families have to come up with an additional $20 a month more per child for lunch throughout the school year. "It's a pittance of money for the city and fewer kids are going to eat a decent lunch," insists Lander.

According to Community Food Advocates, studies have shown that students who participate in school breakfast programs have improved math and reading scores, have fewer behavioral issues and have fewer absences and lateness. Children who participate in school lunch overall consume more vegetables, grains and milk and fewer sweetened beverages and snacks.

Perhaps most important, the stigma of getting "free" food in school would be erased with universal school lunches, as the meals would be free for all students.

New menu, new challenges

This year, in an effort to ensure all the school menus adhered to the new standards under the 2010 federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Child Act, the DOE has dramatically scaled back its menu variations, while deep-sixing some classics, like white-bread pizza and French fries. There are more fruits and vegetables, no more white bread, lower-fat milk, organic yogurt and tofu and 1,000 salad bars across 1,200 schools.

While there have been complaints from students about the changes – as well as a fight this past fall when the DOE ended a popular food education and cooking program, Wellness in Schools, only to institute it again after a volley of protest from parents – for the most part, child nutrition advocates say the city is doing a good job trying to vary a new menu under a whole new set of regulations.

"With all due respect, even among adults, a lot of people are going to pick fried food over tofu," observes Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. To get anyone on board with a new kind of food, you have to introduce it again and again and again, says Berg, who says he is sympathetic to the DOE for having so many children to feed every day. "Even the best chefs on the planet have trouble cooking for that many people at once."

For Lander, Molnar, and others, the city, while doing a lot, can do more to increase access to food. One easy step would be to institute more grab-and-go carts, so kids could take breakfast as they head to their classes in the morning; another would be serving breakfast right in the classroom. While the city doubled the number of kids who were eating breakfast when it instituted the free breakfast program in 2003, the numbers are still pitifully low, says Molnar; in some schools as little as 10 percent of the student body eat school breakfast. Deflecting kids to the cafeteria to eat their breakfast keeps the number of participants in the free breakfast program low and defeats the purpose, she points out.

To get kids to have more buy-in with the new menus, the schools need to work more on food presentation and on empowering kids to take charge of their food and their surroundings, she says.

"Before, if kids were hungry, they could go up and get another peanut butter and jelly sandwich for free. They can't do that anymore," says Molnar, because of the new calorie restrictions. While its "wonderful" to give kids more fruit and vegetables, "a lot depends on how it's prepared."

Waste is a concern

Getting more kids to take school meals, and making sure they have to eat, is one issue: Cutting down on food waste is another.

While there are no current estimates of how much food is wasted in the school lunch program, the USDA relies on statistics gathered in the early to mid 90s, which estimated that school lunch "plate waste," meaning food selected but not consumed, could range from 10 to 37 percent, depending on the population studied, with 12 percent considered the best national estimate (by comparison, household plate waste is estimated by the USDA to be 26 percent nationwide).

The USDA also noted in a 2002 report to Congress on plate waste (Plate Waste in School Nutrition Programs, Final Report to Congress) that waste tended to increase when school lunch was served "very early or very late," and when students did not have the "offer versus served" option; i.e., when they were not able to choose the items they could have for lunch. The same 2002 report noted that most of the plate waste occurred around food high in folate, i.e., salads, fruits and vegetables, that girls tended to waste more food than boys and that younger children tended to waste more food than older children.

That comports with what food advocates and nutritionists have seen in the schools.

"Where you really start to see excessive food waste is pre-K," says Debby Lee Cohen, an artist and founder of Cafeteria Culture, a nonprofit school group that uses the arts to build awareness about waste and climate change, like making 10-foot tall puppets out of Styrofoam containers to help children visualize what's going into landfills.

Children will take a bite of an apple and throw it away or a few bites of lasagna and then, because some of them only have 20 minutes for lunch, will spend the time talking with friends and not eating. Educating children on their place in the food chain, and teaching them to be "stewards" of their own eating habits, will in the long run reduce waste, insists Cohen, as well as reduce the environmental impact that the food waste creates.

Others agree. With the advent of the new, federal regulations requiring more fruits and vegetables in the menu, "this is an opportunity to educate kids, to engage then," observes Jan Poppendieck, author of book "Free for All, Fixing School Food in America" (University of California Press, 2011). "If I have a criticism, and I do, nobody got the principals on board, to get the teachers on board to engage kids about why there were changes. This is an opportunity to educate kids, to engage them. I think we really need to educate kids about waste."

After Sandy

Amie Hamlin, executive director of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, says she sympathizes with the DOE's struggle to meet the new calories and menu requirements; effectively, if the DOE complies with all the new rules, it gets six cents more per meal in reimbursement from the federal government for something that probably costs maybe 35 cents more, estimates Hamlin. It was hard enough to run the school food program before the new requirements, "now with the additional requirements of fruits and vegetables, it's really harder to pay for and given the limited lunch time, they don't have time to eat."

"It's a tricky, difficult business," Hamlin concludes.

But while DOE's proposal to raise some lunch prices reflects an eye on the bottom line, its post-Sandy waiver betrays an instinct to meet students' basic needs.

"New York City school [system] is trying to do right by kids and to respond to the needs of kids," says Madeline Levin of FRAC.

But now is the time, say other child advocates, for the city to seize the moral advantage it has garnered with the two months of free lunches for all students and seriously consider implementing permanently.

As the DOE's SchoolFood program is currently configured, not enough low-income children are taking advantage of the benefit, maintains Molnar. "We are losing a nutritional benefit for poor kids, who need it, which is mostly paid for by the federal government. The point is kids are not eating. It's a benefit available to them, it's in the budget and kids are not taking advantage of it. They are not getting the nutrition that they need, and they are sitting in class hungry."