Mayor Proposes to Slash Budget for Breakfast in the NY Classroom
As school districts in Newark, Los Angeles, and Dallas have built support for programs that ensure schools serve breakfast in classrooms, New York City has its version on the chopping block.
In a move that has angered anti-hunger advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed cuts of $24 million from the Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC) program for New York City public schools, part of the $629 million in agency cuts in his 2020 executive budget.
The cuts would be broken down over four years, with $6 million each year in “savings from the BIC budget by allowing flexibility in implementation,” reads the Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2020.
City Council and de Blasio have a June deadline to approve the new budget.
The BIC program has led to an increase in kids eating breakfast at school. Since the year before the program launched in the 2014–15 school year through 2017–18 school year — the most recent data available — more than 79,000 additional children are eating school breakfast in NYC.
Deputy press secretary for the Office of the Mayor, Raul Contreras, said the city “is not eliminating breakfast,” but giving principals a choice. An “opt-in” would allow schools to serve breakfast in the classroom. An “opt out” option may require children to get to school before the bell — usually 20 minutes before the start of the school day — to eat breakfast in the cafeteria; breakfast service could potentially end at the start of school.
The $6 million in savings per year would come from “fewer costs associated with bringing breakfast to the classroom and cleaning it up,” said Contreras. “Either way, breakfast will be served.”
New York City Council member Mark Treyger, chair of the education committee and a former teacher at New Utrecht High School, said he would fight the budget cuts.
“The majority of our public school children experience poverty and food insecurity,” he said. “There may be valid concerns about cleaning and implementation, and those can be fixed, but you do not drop the ball on this program. It is a complete cop out that will exacerbate food insecurity.”
Anti-hunger advocates are also critical of the decision. “Make no mistake about it: The bureaucratic language in the budget proposal — ‘allowing flexibility in implementation’ — means the city would allow some schools to simply not serve breakfasts in the classrooms, the best-proven way to ensure all hungry kids eat,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger-Free America.
Advocates warn that the proposed “opt-in” or “opt-out” implementation of BIC could violate a new state law which mandates that “all public elementary or secondary schools with at least seventy percent or more of its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program are required to offer all students a school breakfast after the instruction.”
Over 1000 schools of the 1,970 schools in New York City meet these criteria and therefore must serve breakfast after the bell.
Department of Education deputy press secretary Miranda Barbot said the flexible implementation would not violate state law.
The de Blasio administration in 2015 launched Breakfast in the Classroom. It has served those who have not, or cannot eat at home, or arrive late and hungry because of transportation challenges, complicated morning schedules, or because they are living in homeless shelters and have to travel far distances to reach their home district school every morning. (Last year, the number of city students in temporary housing topped 100,000 for the third consecutive year.)
According to the Food Research Action Center School Breakfast Scorecard, “BIC has proved to be the most successful strategy for increasing school breakfast participation.”
But New York has been playing catch up while cities like Newark, Houston, Los Angeles, Richmond, and Dallas cite high participation rates in eating breakfast at school, according to the 2019 Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) School Breakfast Report.
A 2019 New York state School Breakfast Report by Hunger Solutions found that only one in four low-income students in New York City ate free or reduced-priced breakfast during the 2017–2018 school year.
“Serving breakfast in the classroom is the most inclusive way to ensure that all students are starting the day ready to learn, regardless of family income,” said Rachel Sabella, director of the No Kid Hungry New York campaign. “School breakfast is one of the most effective tools we have in the fight against childhood hunger.”
Advocates also point out that New York City is leaving millions of dollars on the table in federal reimbursements — $44.6 million per year according to that 2019 New York State School Breakfast Report by Hunger Solutions— because of low breakfast participation.
“This proposal will not only increase student hunger,” said Berg. “ It will turn away tens of millions of dollars of federal reimbursement funds, thereby counterproductively losing more in federal funds than it would save in City funds.”
Sherry Tomasky, director of communications and public affairs at Hunger Solutions New York, said the cuts make the future of breakfast in public schools uncertain.
“How does the Mayor plan to grow and maintain the school breakfast program in light of these cuts? How can the DOE prioritize this program if principals are permitted to opt-out? It’s hard to imagine how this program will stay the same or grow, and that is not good news for the hungry children of this city.”
Andrea Strong writes about the intersection of food, business, law, and policy. She is the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, a parent-led advocacy group working to bring holistic reform to school food in NYC. Follow her @strongbuzz @NYCSchoolFood.