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.