‘Shocked and Disappointed’: Public Advocate Rips de Blasio Over Free School Lunch

Letitia James unleashed uncharacteristally strong criticism on Bill de Blasio for opposing universal free midday meals in public schools.

Public Advocate Letitia James. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Public Advocate Letitia James. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images) Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Public Advocate Letitia James—normally a reliable de Blasio ally—today tore into the mayor for opposing free school lunches for all New York City public school students.

Ms. James, a longtime advocate for universal midday meals, attacked Mayor Bill de Blasio’s claim that a pilot program launched last year granting free food to all middle school students has had “mixed results.” The public advocate pointed to a study by the nonprofit Lunch for Learning indicating that between 10,000 and 15,000 additional intermediate school pupils had taken advantage of the program.

“I was shocked and disappointed that Mayor de Blasio said during his executive budget presentation that no expansion of free lunch would happen this year. Because the program so far has produced quote-unquote ‘mixed results,'” she said at a presser outside the Department of Education’s downtown headquarters. “Mr. Mayor, you’re wrong. Universal free lunch works and the results are in.”

Ms. James, a liberal Democrat like the mayor, highlighted that universal free lunch would cost about $20 million out of a $78 billion city budget, and would represent one-tenth of one percent of the DOE outlay. She listed an array of benefits, particularly emphasizing her desire to alleviate the embarrassment low-income students feel receiving free food.

“Students will be fed and nourished and ready for the day. Working families will have more flexibility to make ends meet. And schools will be able to direct more time and resources toward educational enrichment,” she argued, noting that consumption of school lunches drops from 81 percent in elementary school to 38 percent in high school, which she claimed is a symptom of peer pressures. “When you’re in high school, there’s nothing ‘cool’ about being poor. So high school students would rather be ‘cool’ and hungry. So we’ve got to remove the stigma of poverty so you can be ‘cool’ and eat.”

Mr. de Blasio preceded Ms. James as public advocate, and used the position to act as a liberal foil to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Ms. James, an ally of Mr. de Blasio since their days in the City Council together, spent her first year in office using the position to support many of the mayor’s initiatives—but has given hints recently she may take a more contrarian role.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, another de Blasio ally, backed universal lunches in last year‘s budget negotiations and endorsed it again in the Council’s response to the mayor’s spending proposals this year. She lent a quote to the press release handed out today, though she did not attend the event herself.

“We must make city students have the resources they need to succeed,” she said in the statement. “Universal free lunch will ensure that students are well-nourished and alert during the school day and the City Counicl will continue to advocate to support funding for this important program.”

Mr. de Blasio’s office indicated it was willing to compromise on the issue.

“We are committed to building on the progress we have seen in last year’s free lunch pilot for all students in 6th to 8th grade middle schools,” spokesman Wiley Norvell said in a statement sent to the Observer, adding that the mayor sought to increase participation in the middle school program. “We appreciate the efforts and collaboration of the City Council and other elected officials, advocates and school communities to move this forward.”

Updated to include comment from Mr. de Blasio’s office.

‘Shocked and Disappointed’: Public Advocate Rips de Blasio Over Free School Lunch