There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but every public school student in New York City may soon get their lunches on the house, courtesy of the city taxpayer.

Public Advocate Letitia James recently called on the Department of Education (DOE) and the city government to buy lunch for every public school student. Currently, about 75 percent of the city’s 1.1 million public school students whose parents earn less than $36,000 (for a family of three) qualify for a no-charge lunch under federal regulations.

That leaves about 350,000 students who don’t quality and have to pay for lunch. All students are separated into different lines in the cafeteria-one for free and one for paid. Because children can often be cruel, those on the pay line often tease those on the free line.

It’s a terrible system, and James claims providing free school lunches for every student removes “the stigma of poverty” and ends the teasing for those who can’t afford to buy their own lunches. She stated it would cost city taxpayers about $20 million more per year; officials are currently analyzing this estimate.

There is, however, a small catch in the tax money used to provide services like free lunch. The federal government uses the school lunch forms detailing household incomes to allocate Title I funds, which go toward buying educational supplies for children at the neediest schools.

If these forms are eliminated under a lunch-for-all program there is no need to fill out forms, and that may disqualify schools from receiving Title I funds for supplies.

City officials will try to work this out, but wouldn’t it be better to try and remove the stigma of poverty without having to spend more taxpayer dollars?

What if every child was issued a lunch card similar to the MetroCard? Those who don’t qualify for a free lunch could have their parents put money on their card each week, and those who do qualify for a free lunch would also have a prepaid card, courtesy of the DOE. There would be only one line, everyone would swipe a card and there would be no stigma attached.

In this consumer-driven, label-wearing and economicallyunbalanced world, city officials might also want to consider ending the stigma of clothing disparities by mandating public school uniforms. Every school could have its own color or pattern, much like private and parochial schools. One style would fit all public school students.

The DOE has a pages-long policy on school uniforms that tries to cover every contingent for implementation and stresses that it has to be approved by parents, guardians and school officials. It may be cumbersome to institute, but it can be done.

Children living in poverty should not be made to feel like second-class citizens, nor should they be bullied or teased because of who they are. If children are treated equally in public schools, they’ll learn a valuable lesson that they can take with them as they get older: treat everyone the way they themselves would want to be treated.

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