AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. More than 30 million kids participate every year in the national school lunch program. That means they get free or reduced-price meals at school. Hunger experts believe many more qualify but don't take part. It could be because of stigma or because their families haven't filled out the paperwork. The federal government is now expanding a program that avoids both of those issues. It allows all kids to eat for free in districts that meet certain requirements. Several big cities have signed up, including Detroit and Chicago. But as Beth Fertig of member station WNYC reports, New York City is holding back.
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: At the East-West School of International Studies in Queens students lining up for lunch have to swipe their cards through a scanning machine before collecting their sandwiches or pizza. At this combined middle and high school almost two-thirds of the nearly 640 students are poor enough to eat for free. For the rest, their parents put money on their cards. Lunch costs $1.75 day. But seventh-grader Jenna Choi says that can be tough even for those who make enough money to pay.
JENNA CHOI: I think it's just to get them by. Like my family, we just make money to get us by.
FERTIG: Staff members at the school say that sentiment is pretty common in this working-class neighborhood of largely Asian immigrants. Sue Jen Hu is the school's community assistant.
SUE JEN HU: Once I asked a kid, how come you don't eat lunch? He said, oh, I have to pay.
FERTIG: The income threshold to qualify for free lunch is about $40,000 a year for a family of four. School aide Sherry Taylor says a big part of her job is collecting forms stating a family's income, which are required for every student.
SHERRY TAYLOR: It's a constant, constant battle - constant battle with them to bring it back. Or they forgot something. Or the parent doesn't want to put the Social Security card number on. Or they haven't signed it.
FERTIG: And she says some families are too embarrassed to reveal their income. These are among the many reasons why anti-hunger advocates want New York City to join a federal program that would allow all kids to eat for free. It started in Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky three years ago. And it's now gone nationwide. Here is how it works. Instead of the hard work of collecting lunch forms, a school district uses data it already has on the number of families getting food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid. As long as it can prove at least 40 percent of the kids qualify for some kind of help, everybody can eat for free. And nobody has to turn in a form. Madeleine Levin has been studying this program for the Food Research and Action Center in Washington.
MADELEINE LEVIN: When we looked at the first three states that implemented community eligibility in the school during the first two years, we found that lunch participation increased by 13 percent and that breakfast participation increased by 25 percent.
FERTIG: Is that a lot?
LEVIN: That's a lot.
FERTIG: And a lot more kids eating lunch means they can concentrate better in school, she says. Feeding everyone also erases the stigma. Advocates say high school kids often skip the free lunch because they don't want their classmates to think they're poor. But lunch for all has a catch. School districts get federal Title I dollars, which pay for lots of different things, based on their number of low-income students. Some districts worry they could get less money if they stop collecting those lunch forms. This is why New York Mayor Bill de Blasio says he supports the goal of universal free lunch but -
DE BLASIO: We are not convinced at this point that it won't unfortunately have the negative impact of reducing our federal funding substantially.
FERTIG: With more than a million students, New York gets hundreds of millions of dollars a year in federal Title I aid. But anti-hunger advocates say there's nothing to fear. They point to Detroit, a shrinking bankrupt city that was an early adopter of universal free lunch. Did it lose any money?
BETTI WIGGINS: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. We did not get less money in Title I distribution.
FERTIG: That's Betti Wiggins, executive director of the Office of School Nutrition for the Detroit Public Schools. Like New York she says Detroit also worried about how to distribute federal aid among its schools if it stopped counting lunch forms. She says the solution was to keep using the forms as a back-up. But they're not make-or-break.
WIGGINS: I have not had the problems that people say of losing money or having to subsidize. Matter of fact, my enrollment went down 14 percent and my reimbursement went up 16 percent the first year.
FERTIG: That gain is attributed to more high school kids eating lunch now - even as the cities shrink - bringing in more federal funds. In New York, three-quarters of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. But a third of them don't participate. The City Council is now pressing the de Blasio administration to include universal free lunch in its final budget, which is due by the end of June. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.