Video Abstract

Video Abstract

Close modal

The New York City (NYC) Department of Education is the largest public school system in the United States, with an enrollment of >1.1 million students. Students who participate in school meal programs can have higher dietary quality than nonparticipating students. Historically, family income documentation qualifying students in the NYC Department of Education for free or reduced-price meals reimbursed by the National School Lunch Program perpetuated poverty stigma. Additionally, National School Lunch Program qualification paperwork was a deterrent to many vulnerable families to participate and impeded all eligible children’s access to nutritious meals, potentially magnifying food insecurity. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 provided a viable option for schools to serve free meals to all students, regardless of income status, as a universal free lunch (UFL) through a Community Eligibility Provision if ≥40% of students already participated in another means-based program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In this case study, we describe the processes of (1) strategic coalition building of the Lunch 4 Learning campaign (a coalition of students, parents, school-based unions, teachers, pediatricians, community leaders, and children’s advocacy organizations) to bring UFL to all NYC public schools, (2) building political support, (3) developing a media strategy, and (4) using an evidence-based strategy to overcome political, administrative, and procedural challenges. The Lunch 4 Learning campaign successfully brought UFL to all NYC public schools in 2017. This case study informs further advocacy efforts to expand UFL in other school districts across the country and national UFL advocacy.

The National School Lunch Program is the federal food and nutrition assistance program for schoolchildren from prekindergarten through 12th grade. The National School Lunch Program is administered via state agencies to local school food authorities (SFAs). Local SFAs require families to submit annual paperwork to document that the household income qualifies a student for free or reduced-price meals. Additionally, although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has allowed schools to serve free meals to all students for 40 years, schools only received full reimbursement for meals served to income-eligible students. An annual income documentation requirement perpetuates the school food program’s poverty stigma1 ; deters many families from applying, especially immigrant families; and impedes children’s access to nutritious meals, potentially increasing risk for food insecurity and future obesity.2 

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 included a Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) that provided a financially viable option for schools to implement universal free lunch (UFL) and tackle the poverty stigma perpetuated by the annual income documentation. Individual schools or entire SFAs qualify for CEP if ≥40% of students are categorically eligible based on their participation in other means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.3  Schools and SFAs with a higher percentage of categorically eligible students are more likely to receive federal and state reimbursements that accurately reflect the true cost of providing meals.4  Additionally, the revised nutrition standards under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act have been linked to a significant decrease in obesity among low-income children.5,6  This decrease may be due to consumption of higher nutritional quality food among students who participate in school meal programs compared with nonparticipating students, across income categories.6,7 

Community Food Advocates (CFA), a small nonprofit advocacy organization, launched the Lunch 4 Learning (L4L) Coalition in 2013 to bring UFL to New York City (NYC) public schools. The CFA and L4L Coalition believed that UFL could help eliminate the school lunch poverty stigma, increase participation and access to nutritious meals, and reduce the paperwork burden on families, schools, and the NYC Department of Education (DOE).8 

This advocacy case study describes how CFA organized and mobilized the L4L Coalition of students, parents, school-based unions, teachers, pediatricians, and community leaders to execute an advocacy campaign to bring UFL to all 1.1 million NYC public school students. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has accelerated the conversation around the need for national free school meals. The organizational approach, strategies, and lessons learned from the UFL campaign may inform similar national school lunch advocacy efforts, regardless of community or city size, to ensure free meals for all students.

The NYC DOE is the largest public school system in the United States, with an enrollment of >1.1 million students (40.6% Hispanic, 25.5% Black, 16.2% Asian American, 15.1% white), of which 72.8% are economically disadvantaged.9  Its annual budget is $34 billion (57% from NYC, 36% from NY state, and 7% from the federal government and other sources).10  NYC’s SFA is the DOE’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS), which serves ∼900 000 meals daily11 : breakfast, lunch, afterschool snacks, and supper to students during the school year12  and summer meals at hundreds of sites throughout the city.13  Although NYC DOE is large in size and budget, the structure of its operations, local decision-makers, and school community stakeholders and challenges are common to large and small school districts across the country.

Since 2002, the NYC DOE has had centralized accountability to the Mayor.14  The Chancellor of DOE, appointed by the Mayor, is responsible for day-to-day DOE operations.1517  Other key decision-makers included several parent leadership bodies, the NYC Public Advocate, the City Council as the city’s legislative body, and the presidents of the 5 NYC boroughs.13,1720 

CFA is a nonprofit organization, founded in 2010, to improve the health of low-income New Yorkers by advocating for the reform, expansion, and accessibility of publicly funded income and food support programs. With the equivalent of 3 full-time staff, and a modest annual operating budget funded primarily by foundation grants, CFA strategically began forming the L4L Coalition in 2013 to expand free lunch access for all NYC public school students. This broad-based coalition convened stakeholders who did not traditionally collaborate on school food advocacy, including school-based unions, parents, students, pediatricians, elected officials, academics, education advocacy, and antihunger, antipoverty, and children’s advocacy organizations.

School-based unions were instrumental by bringing political might and insights to the coalition. The unions included District Council 37, with its Local 372 that represents cafeteria workers, school aides, and school crossing guards; United Federation of Teachers, with members representing teachers and other nonsupervisory educators in NYC public schools; and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, representing principals, assistant principals, supervisors, and education administrators.

The L4L Coalition’s Parent Caucus was formed by parent leaders, many of whom also serve on the DOE’s parent leadership bodies. Parent Caucus members had been and continue to be influential on policy in their school communities and citywide. Students, including CFA’s Youth Food Advocates, engaged in essential L4L Coalition activities and shared their experiences through their unique perspectives about school meals and the role of stigma in the cafeteria.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) New York Chapter 3 Committee on Nutrition and Obesity,18  formed in 2015, provided a venue for pediatrician advocacy to improve child nutrition and well-being. The committee joined L4L in 2015 and provided compelling clinician expertise through written letters and in-person testimony to propel the campaign forward.

Because DOE and the Chancellor are directly accountable to the Mayor, L4L Coalition goals were to gain support from the Mayor and Chancellor of DOE for UFL and to include UFL in the City’s budget. To achieve these goals, the L4L Coalition used a number of strategies: (1) broad-reach coalition building by grassroots campaigning and hosting planning meetings; (2) building political support by writing petitions, sign-on letters, attending budget hearings and press conferences, and meeting with elected officials to galvanize the support of >200 organizations and elected officials; (3) media strategy incorporating press conferences, rallies, articles and op-eds, television coverage, and social media to reach a broad audience; and (4) evidence-based strategy to leverage school lunch participation and budget data and qualitative on-site observation and data collection to document the impact of UFL (Table 1). These strategies included a number of coordinated activities strategically positioned in the annual budget cycle to draw attention to the issue and compel the Chancellor of DOE, Mayor, and City Council members to enact change and allocate funds in the school budget for UFL. The timing of specific actions, the involvement of key stakeholders, and the strategic delivery of campaign messaging were as important as the volume of activities.

TABLE 1

Approach to the L4L Coalition Advocacy Work

ActivitiesStakeholders (Role)aActivity FormatChallengesSolutions
Strategic coalition building     
 Grassroots campaigning and strategic planning meetings • CFA (coalition lead) • Scheduled campaign meetings
• Engaged individual organizations to contribute staff resources to campaign
• Developed campaign activities that aligned with NYC budget timelines 
• Stakeholder buy-in
• Differing priorities, schedules, and communication styles
• Sustaining focus among competing priorities 
• Connected the importance of nutritious food to individual stakeholder priorities
• Offered flexible communication styles and meeting formats 
Building political support     
 Petitions, sign-on letters, and postcards to the Mayor • Parents and students (petitioners)
• AAP NY (supporters) 
• Sent support letters from 70+ parent organizations, 50+ AAP New York pediatricians, City Council members, and all 5 borough presidents
• Delivered petition with 4000 signatures of support and >9000 postcards 
• Reaching potential supporters
• Collecting signatures and postcards
• Providing technical support on how to write policy advocacy letters 
• Provided online petitions
• Presented letter requests at standing organization meetings
• Mobilized coalition member networks
• Developed electronic sign-on letters and letter templates 
 Budget hearings • Antihunger organizations, parents, and students (speakers)
• Elected officials (champions) 
• L4L partners testified at every relevant budget hearing
• Elected officials heard all testimonies 
• Sufficient stakeholder attendance
• Preparing inexperienced stakeholders for public testimony and events 
• Ensured diverse representation and large group of stakeholders
• Tailored coaching and training workshops for individuals and organizations to demystify the hearing process 
 Meetings with elected officials, the Mayor’s office, and Chancellor • CFA, parents, and union leaders (presenters) • Gave individual briefings to elected officials • Elected officials’ busy schedules
• Ensuring stakeholder availability given limited elected official availability and brief meeting notice 
• Built a diverse and large pool of stakeholders 
Media strategy     
 Press conferences and rallies • CFA, parents, students, union leaders, and elected officials (speakers) • Held press conferences and rallies in key locations at City Hall and NYC DOE headquarters
• Featured as key action item and policy issue 
• Sufficient attendance
• Adequate media coverage
• Acquiring legal permits
• Arranging event logistics 
• Built a diverse and large pool of stakeholders
• Established relationships with members of the press 
 Articles and op-eds • Elected officials, union leaders, and students (authors) • Released reports and analyses with media coverage
• Personalized opinion pieces to convey positive impact of UFL 
• Writing is labor intensive
• Getting placements in a competitive media market 
• Strategized whose voice would hold the greatest political impact
• Timed releases strategically
• Prioritized quality of articles over quantity 
 Communication and television coverage • Global Strategies Group (strategic communications firm) • Expanded coverage and media placements of articles
• Strategically timed an ad featuring Rachael Ray on NY1 
• Expensive to engage a strategic communications firm • Prioritized one impactful television ad with a celebrity chef who donated her time and staff resources 
 Social media • Students, parents, and teachers (content creators) • Mobilized students via student-led “Just lunch. No stigma” selfie campaign • Limited staff capacity to support broad-scale social media pushes • Limited the number of large-scale social media activities
• Directed student and family buy-in messaging targeted at elected officials 
Evidence-based strategy     
 NYC DOE lunch participation and budget data • CFA (data analyst)
• NYC DOE (data source) 
• Analyzed NYC DOE lunch participation data
• Estimated budget from participation data 
• Challenging to access timely budget data directly from the City • Requested NYC DOE data monthly
• Developed budget estimates based on lunch use rates 
 On-site observation • CFA (data collectors) • Observed cafeteria settings
• Gathered feedback from students, teachers, OFNS staff, and school administrators 
• Capturing variable lunchroom experiences, rates of participation, poverty, and sense of stigma • Visited several cafeteria sites to get diverse perspective 
ActivitiesStakeholders (Role)aActivity FormatChallengesSolutions
Strategic coalition building     
 Grassroots campaigning and strategic planning meetings • CFA (coalition lead) • Scheduled campaign meetings
• Engaged individual organizations to contribute staff resources to campaign
• Developed campaign activities that aligned with NYC budget timelines 
• Stakeholder buy-in
• Differing priorities, schedules, and communication styles
• Sustaining focus among competing priorities 
• Connected the importance of nutritious food to individual stakeholder priorities
• Offered flexible communication styles and meeting formats 
Building political support     
 Petitions, sign-on letters, and postcards to the Mayor • Parents and students (petitioners)
• AAP NY (supporters) 
• Sent support letters from 70+ parent organizations, 50+ AAP New York pediatricians, City Council members, and all 5 borough presidents
• Delivered petition with 4000 signatures of support and >9000 postcards 
• Reaching potential supporters
• Collecting signatures and postcards
• Providing technical support on how to write policy advocacy letters 
• Provided online petitions
• Presented letter requests at standing organization meetings
• Mobilized coalition member networks
• Developed electronic sign-on letters and letter templates 
 Budget hearings • Antihunger organizations, parents, and students (speakers)
• Elected officials (champions) 
• L4L partners testified at every relevant budget hearing
• Elected officials heard all testimonies 
• Sufficient stakeholder attendance
• Preparing inexperienced stakeholders for public testimony and events 
• Ensured diverse representation and large group of stakeholders
• Tailored coaching and training workshops for individuals and organizations to demystify the hearing process 
 Meetings with elected officials, the Mayor’s office, and Chancellor • CFA, parents, and union leaders (presenters) • Gave individual briefings to elected officials • Elected officials’ busy schedules
• Ensuring stakeholder availability given limited elected official availability and brief meeting notice 
• Built a diverse and large pool of stakeholders 
Media strategy     
 Press conferences and rallies • CFA, parents, students, union leaders, and elected officials (speakers) • Held press conferences and rallies in key locations at City Hall and NYC DOE headquarters
• Featured as key action item and policy issue 
• Sufficient attendance
• Adequate media coverage
• Acquiring legal permits
• Arranging event logistics 
• Built a diverse and large pool of stakeholders
• Established relationships with members of the press 
 Articles and op-eds • Elected officials, union leaders, and students (authors) • Released reports and analyses with media coverage
• Personalized opinion pieces to convey positive impact of UFL 
• Writing is labor intensive
• Getting placements in a competitive media market 
• Strategized whose voice would hold the greatest political impact
• Timed releases strategically
• Prioritized quality of articles over quantity 
 Communication and television coverage • Global Strategies Group (strategic communications firm) • Expanded coverage and media placements of articles
• Strategically timed an ad featuring Rachael Ray on NY1 
• Expensive to engage a strategic communications firm • Prioritized one impactful television ad with a celebrity chef who donated her time and staff resources 
 Social media • Students, parents, and teachers (content creators) • Mobilized students via student-led “Just lunch. No stigma” selfie campaign • Limited staff capacity to support broad-scale social media pushes • Limited the number of large-scale social media activities
• Directed student and family buy-in messaging targeted at elected officials 
Evidence-based strategy     
 NYC DOE lunch participation and budget data • CFA (data analyst)
• NYC DOE (data source) 
• Analyzed NYC DOE lunch participation data
• Estimated budget from participation data 
• Challenging to access timely budget data directly from the City • Requested NYC DOE data monthly
• Developed budget estimates based on lunch use rates 
 On-site observation • CFA (data collectors) • Observed cafeteria settings
• Gathered feedback from students, teachers, OFNS staff, and school administrators 
• Capturing variable lunchroom experiences, rates of participation, poverty, and sense of stigma • Visited several cafeteria sites to get diverse perspective 
a

All stakeholders were volunteers.

To support the magnitude of the advocacy and coordinating efforts, the 3-member CFA team organized all activities; established a clear delineation of CFA team and stakeholder roles, which was refined throughout the advocacy process; and led and participated in all activities. All coalition partner efforts were volunteer based. Only CFA staff salaries and supplies were supported through the CFA organizational budget (Table 1).

The L4L Coalition tracked and measured campaign progress in 4 main ways: key milestone achievements, school lunch participation data, school cafeteria observations, and City budget analysis. Key milestone achievements included political announcements, campaign events, and policy changes.

The OFNS provided the DOE’s anonymized school meal participation data to CFA monthly, including average daily school lunch participation. The number of schools that offered UFL over time was tracked to create realistic milestones to inform future policy recommendations and participation goals.

Established relationships between CFA, members of the L4L Coalition, and the schools and OFNS also facilitated CFA’s on-site observations of cafeterias, kitchens, serving lines, and dining areas. During these visits, CFA staff engaged in conversations with food service staff and school administrators. Coalition partners, parents, and students also contributed their personal experiences with school food. Photographs and documented conversations captured a richness of experiences that enhanced the quantitative data.

To maximize the federal reimbursement for school meals under the CEP, CFA estimated the percentage of students who were categorically eligible. The projected impact of UFL on the NYC DOE budget was based on available eligibility data and participation history by using the federal reimbursement rate from USDA plus the New York State reimbursement rate per meal per child. CFA also used data from the first year of the middle school pilot in 2014–2015 to project participation and meal reimbursements under UFL, factoring in federal and state reimbursement increases covering lunch costs.

The L4L Coalition efforts were marked by a number of milestones throughout L4L’s 4-year UFL campaign (Fig 1). During the 2013 mayoral election, most of the candidates included UFL in their mayoral platforms. In 2014, with the advocacy support from champions, including the Public Advocate, City Council Speaker, a State Senator, the Mayor announced free school lunch in all stand-alone middle schools beginning in the 2014–2015 school year. By February 2017, the Public Advocate, the City Council Speaker, the City Council’s Black, Latino, Asian Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and all 5 borough presidents had included UFL as a top budget priority. In June 2017, NYC adopted a budget allocation to fund free lunch for an additional 475 000 students through CEP, covering most but not all students. In September 2017, the day before the school year started, the DOE Chancellor announced free school lunch for all, bringing the program to all 1.1 million students.

FIGURE 1

Coalition key actions and milestone achievements. Key actions and milestone achievements of the L4L Coalition from its creation in 2013 to the successful result of its advocacy effort with implementation of UFL across all NYC public schools in fall 2017. Horizontal lines to the left represent campaign actions, and lines to the right represent key milestones attained. CSA, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators; UFT, United Federation of Teachers.

FIGURE 1

Coalition key actions and milestone achievements. Key actions and milestone achievements of the L4L Coalition from its creation in 2013 to the successful result of its advocacy effort with implementation of UFL across all NYC public schools in fall 2017. Horizontal lines to the left represent campaign actions, and lines to the right represent key milestones attained. CSA, Council of School Supervisors and Administrators; UFT, United Federation of Teachers.

Close modal

The citywide daily student participation in school lunch increased from 57.8% in the 2016–2017 school year to 60.7% participation after UFL implementation, with a daily average of 26 000 additional students eating school lunch. This translates to >4.6 million additional school meals served per school year. Overall, school lunch participation rates were trending downward in elementary, middle, and high school students from 2013 to 2017. The declines reversed after the implementation of UFL in the 2017–2018 school year.

During the campaign for UFL between 2014 and 2017, CFA conducted ∼20 school visits and on-site cafeteria observations annually. In the 2017–2018 school year, the first year of UFL, CFA conducted 50 site visits. Table 2 summarizes key findings and summary observations of CFA staff who conducted informal on-site school visits in >100 school buildings between 2014 and 2018. In addition to UFL, qualitative information gleaned from on-site school visits highlights how school administration support, a cafeteria environment, lunch schedules, open campuses, and access to alternative food sources may promote or deter the maximization of school lunch participation and may guide future advocacy.

TABLE 2

Summary of Findings from Visits to School Cafeterias

Key FindingSummary of Observations
A supportive school administration can lead to higher participation In general, the participation rate is higher in schools in which principals and teachers demonstrate support for the school lunch program than in schools with nonengaged administrations. 
 When principals and other administrators develop relationships with the kitchen staff, it benefits the school lunch program. 
Cafeteria environment sets the tone of the school lunch experience Spacious, well-designed, well-lit cafeterias entice students to eat. 
 Overburdened lunchroom staff with insufficient time to clean tables between lunch periods leads to unappealing environment. 
Scheduling is an important factor for school lunch participation More than 40 schools visited in the 2017–2018 school year had lunch periods that began before 10 am and ended at ∼2 pm
 Students may skip earlier lunch periods because they are not yet hungry. 
 Students may skip last period lunch and go home early. 
Open campuses adversely affect school meal participation Student participation rates in high schools with open or partially open campuses are typically 15–20 percentage points lower than the average participation rate for all high schools. 
Alternative food sales in the cafeteria compete with school lunch Despite alternative food sale regulations, some schools regularly sell food and beverage items in the cafeteria through school stores, student and PTA fundraisers, or special events during lunch. 
 Sale of alternative foods during lunch may lead students to consume items that are less nutritious than what is offered by the OFNS and can perpetuate stigma of the school lunch program. 
Key FindingSummary of Observations
A supportive school administration can lead to higher participation In general, the participation rate is higher in schools in which principals and teachers demonstrate support for the school lunch program than in schools with nonengaged administrations. 
 When principals and other administrators develop relationships with the kitchen staff, it benefits the school lunch program. 
Cafeteria environment sets the tone of the school lunch experience Spacious, well-designed, well-lit cafeterias entice students to eat. 
 Overburdened lunchroom staff with insufficient time to clean tables between lunch periods leads to unappealing environment. 
Scheduling is an important factor for school lunch participation More than 40 schools visited in the 2017–2018 school year had lunch periods that began before 10 am and ended at ∼2 pm
 Students may skip earlier lunch periods because they are not yet hungry. 
 Students may skip last period lunch and go home early. 
Open campuses adversely affect school meal participation Student participation rates in high schools with open or partially open campuses are typically 15–20 percentage points lower than the average participation rate for all high schools. 
Alternative food sales in the cafeteria compete with school lunch Despite alternative food sale regulations, some schools regularly sell food and beverage items in the cafeteria through school stores, student and PTA fundraisers, or special events during lunch. 
 Sale of alternative foods during lunch may lead students to consume items that are less nutritious than what is offered by the OFNS and can perpetuate stigma of the school lunch program. 

PTA, parent-teacher association.

Because of CEP’s meal reimbursement structure and the percentage of NYC students who were categorically eligible, NYC met the threshold for all meals to be reimbursed by the federal government at the highest level.19  CFA estimated NYC received $61.8 million more in federal and state lunch reimbursement for the 2017–2018 school year than the previous year by opting in to CEP and offering UFL.

By implementing UFL, NYC DOE has reversed decades of policy separating public school students by income in the cafeteria. The L4L Coalition’s success in ensuring the adoption of UFL eliminates the barrier of application, eligibility, and affordability and reduces food insecurity and stigma for students and their families. UFL is foundational to overcome decades of discriminatory policies that marked students by income.

The L4L Coalition faced many political, administrative, and procedural challenges that presented significant barriers to securing UFL. Efforts in NYC serve as a model for how a small, organized, and motivated group of advocates can build a broad-based coalition and galvanize its force to overcome competing political priorities and achieve UFL.

The challenges faced by the L4L Coalition were overcome through the application of a best-practices framework that could be readily applied by a highly motivated, existing advocacy group to any municipal setting, regardless of size, namely (1) strategic coalition building, (2) building targeted political support, (3) media strategy, and (4) evidence-based strategy underpinned by data analysis (Table 3).

TABLE 3

Best Practices Framework

ActivitiesBest Practices
Strategic coalition building  
 Set UFL as the foundational first step that connects all diverse coalition entities Engage different coalition members to specific activities and events to sustain involvement and attune to time availability 
 Identify key partners in local education councils, city committees on education, superintendents or chancellor office(s), PTA meetings or Parent Councils, the SFA for your school district, antihunger organizations, youth-led organizations, and your local AAP Chapter 
 Develop strategies and tactics and communicate campaign progress and campaign activities to all members with regular meetings (virtual, teleconference, and in-person options) 
Building political support  
 Learn your city’s political landscape to know who, when, and how you target decision-makers Map out your city, district, and SFA organizational structures 
 Focus on high-impact activities targeting key policymakers (ie, committee chairs, district leaders, etc) 
 Work with many coalition partners to prepare and submit testimonials at key public hearings 
Media strategy  
 Ensure the unique perspectives of a diverse coalition base and focus on low-cost, high-impact strategies Pediatricians speak to emphasize the nutritional value and benefits of access to healthy meals through UFL 
 Educators speak to address academic and mental health benefits of UFL 
 Students to speak to their own and their classmates’ personal experiences (eg, financial burden in providing meals or lunch money or lunchroom stigma) 
Evidence-based strategy  
 Understand CEP eligibility requirements and use existing evidence in support of school meals and its impact on your community to support strategy Learn more about CEP on the USDA Web sitea and the CEP Resource Centera 
 Build trust and partnerships with your SFA to establish an information exchange pipeline 
 Use reputable sources in support of UFL (eg, Syracuse Studyb
ActivitiesBest Practices
Strategic coalition building  
 Set UFL as the foundational first step that connects all diverse coalition entities Engage different coalition members to specific activities and events to sustain involvement and attune to time availability 
 Identify key partners in local education councils, city committees on education, superintendents or chancellor office(s), PTA meetings or Parent Councils, the SFA for your school district, antihunger organizations, youth-led organizations, and your local AAP Chapter 
 Develop strategies and tactics and communicate campaign progress and campaign activities to all members with regular meetings (virtual, teleconference, and in-person options) 
Building political support  
 Learn your city’s political landscape to know who, when, and how you target decision-makers Map out your city, district, and SFA organizational structures 
 Focus on high-impact activities targeting key policymakers (ie, committee chairs, district leaders, etc) 
 Work with many coalition partners to prepare and submit testimonials at key public hearings 
Media strategy  
 Ensure the unique perspectives of a diverse coalition base and focus on low-cost, high-impact strategies Pediatricians speak to emphasize the nutritional value and benefits of access to healthy meals through UFL 
 Educators speak to address academic and mental health benefits of UFL 
 Students to speak to their own and their classmates’ personal experiences (eg, financial burden in providing meals or lunch money or lunchroom stigma) 
Evidence-based strategy  
 Understand CEP eligibility requirements and use existing evidence in support of school meals and its impact on your community to support strategy Learn more about CEP on the USDA Web sitea and the CEP Resource Centera 
 Build trust and partnerships with your SFA to establish an information exchange pipeline 
 Use reputable sources in support of UFL (eg, Syracuse Studyb

PTA, parent-teacher association.

a

US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. Community Eligibility Provision Resource Center. Available at: https://www.fns.usda.gov/cn/community-eligibility-provision-resource-center. Accessed December 18, 2020.

b

Syracuse University Maxwell School Center for Policy Research. “Let Them Eat Lunch: The Impact of Universal Free Meals on Student Performance.” Available at: https://www.maxwell.syr.edu/uploadedFiles/cpr/publications/working_papers2/wp203.pdf. Accessed December 15, 2020.

Strategic coalition building formed the basis of the coalition’s power; a diverse group of established and new stakeholders with differing perspectives, expertise, and experiences were necessary to successfully advocate for and attain UFL. To foster buy-in and sustain campaign focus, common ground was established among all stakeholders by linking importance of nutritious food and student well-being with student ability to thrive academically. As leaders of citywide, borough-based, and community-based parent organizations, Parent Caucus members brought deep knowledge of the workings of the DOE to the campaign; built overwhelming citywide parent support; engaged policy makers, media outlets, and collected petitions; and efficiently disseminated information to families. Students played a powerful role informing policy makers about their experiences sitting out meals, despite being hungry at school; risking social ostracism for eating school lunch; or lacking funds to pay for lunch in school. The school-based unions brought political strength and direct member experience of witnessing the impact of stigma on student well-being and participation. The AAP New York Chapter 3 Committee on Nutrition and Obesity provided an organizational structure for pediatricians to leverage their skills and advocacy interests through (1) providing targeted opportunities to testify at key meetings, (2) writing powerful letters based on their experience with food insecurity and clinical impacts of inadequate nutrition, and (3) distributing advocacy findings across clinical and organizational networks. The L4L Coalition was empowered to persevere, generate momentum, and overcome many barriers to implementing UFL by the identification of leadership in each key stakeholder group and adoption of a stakeholder-centered approach. A stakeholder-centric approach enabled the coalition to accommodate competing priorities, limited resources, differing schedules, and variable communication preferences.

L4L Coalition built political support through an awareness of NYC and SFA’s organizational structures and the evolving political landscape. The campaign launched before the 2013 NYC mayoral election, providing an opportunity to secure critical public commitment to UFL from mayoral candidates. Before key NYC budget decisions, the L4L Coalition was able to garner political and public support from strategically timed, targeted meetings with DOE leadership, the Mayor’s Office, and City Council and written and oral testimony at budget hearings. The L4L Coalition strategically developed campaign messages reflecting the importance of the issue, and CFA’s union partners prioritized UFL in the 2017 NYC budget process.

CFA’s media strategy emphasized the use of earned (free), influential partner perspectives that were disseminated with primary reliance on free media coverage, editorials, op-eds, social media, media stories, press conferences, and rallies. Leveraging networks to encourage local or influential community voices to donate their time to support public service announcements or impactful television ads also proved to be highly effective.

CFA’s deep knowledge of the school meals programs, data, and budget analysis was integral to the campaign’s success. The evidence-based strategy was grounded in an understanding of the CEP reimbursement structures2022  and a unifying message that well-fed children are better prepared to learn,2326  and the testimonies of all stakeholders reinforced the message. School lunch participation data and observations of UFL in stand-alone middle schools provided quantitative and qualitative evidence for increased participation rate. Increases in lunch participation, parents’ and administrators’ relief due to paperwork elimination, and lunch fees all served to highlight the benefits of UFL. School participation data are a readily available source of data that can be used to justify UFL implementation, regardless of municipality size.

Implementation of UFL in a single school or across a school district is the first step to provide access to nutritious food vital to achieving health equity for all youth.2729  After a 4-year advocacy campaign, the L4L Coalition successfully attained UFL across all NYC public schools in 2017. Many lessons from the advocacy campaign for UFL in NYC are broadly applicable to school districts of varying sizes: the strategic coalition building and campaign activities designed by a few, highly motivated individuals are not unique to a community of this scale. Other cities, suburbs, and small towns across the country can apply similar approaches toward achieving their advocacy goals by leveraging the power of committed leadership and an organized group of parents, students, education advocates, local politicians, and health professionals to advocate for policies and practices that increase school meal participation and address school food stigma.

The COVID-19 pandemic has propelled a national UFL campaign to the forefront of national politics, given school food’s pronounced role in addressing hunger and food insecurity. As a result of UFL and the L4L Coalition’s continued advocacy during NYC’s COVID-19 emergency food response, all NYC public school students received the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer food benefit. The OFNS has also served free grab-and-go meals for children and adults at hundreds of school locations citywide since spring 2020. These ongoing activities demonstrate how the UFL implementation experience in NYC can inform similar local and national applications that contribute to public health solutions for youth.

We appreciate all of the L4L Coalition partners. By joining together to bring all of our strengths to this effort, we accomplished a historic change in NYC’s school meals program that will affect generations to come. We would like to recognize Agnes Molnar and Kathy Goldman, the founders of Community Food Advocates, for their decades of school food advocacy in NYC. Thank you also to Janet Poppendieck for writing Free for All, the groundbreaking book on why we should have free universal school lunch for all.

We acknowledge additional members of the AAP New York State Chapter 3 Committee on Nutrition and Obesity, including Janet Lee, MD, Judith Wylie-Rosett, EdD, RDN, Ava Satnick, MD, John Gaipa, MD, and Griselle de Frank, MD, for their contributions to the advocacy work. We also wish to acknowledge Lori Legano, MD, Heather Brumberg, MD, MPH, and Lisa Handworker, MD, from the AAP New York Chapter 3 for their advocacy and support of this work.

Ms Watts engaged in the advocacy work by conducting data analysis and generating reports for the Lunch 4 Learning campaign and conceptualized, drafted, and revised the manuscript; Ms Araiza engaged in the advocacy work by coordinating the youth advocacy efforts and by reviewing campaign historic records, generated the time line, and conceptualized and revised the manuscript; Drs Fernández, Rosenthal, Vargas-Rodriguez, Duroseau, and Rieder all engaged in the advocacy work by participating in letter-writing campaigns and attending both meetings with elected officials and Lunch 4 Learning campaign rallies and drafted and revised the manuscript; Ms Accles engaged in the advocacy work by leading the Lunch 4 Learning campaign efforts in her role as the Executive Director of Community Food Advocates and revised the manuscript; and all authors approved the final manuscript as submitted and agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work.

FUNDING: No external funding.

     
  • AAP

    American Academy of Pediatrics

  •  
  • CEP

    Community Eligibility Provision

  •  
  • CFA

    Community Food Advocates

  •  
  • COVID-19

    coronavirus disease 2019

  •  
  • DOE

    Department of Education

  •  
  • L4L

    Lunch 4 Learning

  •  
  • NYC

    New York City

  •  
  • OFNS

    Office of Food and Nutrition Services

  •  
  • SFA

    school food authority

  •  
  • UFL

    universal free lunch

  •  
  • USDA

    US Department of Agriculture

1
Pogash
C
.
Free lunch isn’t cool, so some students go hungry
.
New York Times
.
Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/01/education/01lunch.html. Accessed September 1, 2020
2
Tester
JM
,
Rosas
LG
,
Leung
CW
.
Food insecurity and pediatric obesity: a double whammy in the era of COVID-19
.
Curr Obes Rep
.
2020
;
9
(
4
):
442
450
3
Food Research and Action Center
.
Community Eligibility Provision: facts
.
4
US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service
.
Child nutrition programs: Community Eligibility Provision
.
Available at: https://www.fns.usda.gov/cn/community-eligibility-provision. Accessed September 2, 2020
5
Kenney
EL
,
Barrett
JL
,
Bleich
SN
,
Ward
ZJ
,
Cradock
AL
,
Gortmaker
SL
.
Impact of the healthy, hunger-free kids act on obesity trends
.
Health Aff (Millwood)
.
2020
;
39
(
7
):
1122
1129
6
Cohen
JFW
,
Hecht
AA
,
McLoughlin
GM
,
Turner
L
,
Schwartz
MB
.
Universal school meals and associations with student participation, attendance, academic performance, diet quality, food security, and body mass index: A systematic review
.
Nutrients
.
2021
;
13
(
3
):
911
7
Mathematica Policy Research
.
School nutrition and meal cost study summary of findings
.
2019
. .
8
US Department of Agriculture
.
Fact sheet: Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act school meals implementation
.
2014
.
9
New York City Department of Education
.
DOE data at a glance
.
2019
.
10
New York City Department of Education
.
Funding our schools
.
2020
.
11
The Official Website of the City of New York
.
Mayor de Blasio Joins Rachael Ray, Tom Colicchio and advocates to fight proposed cuts to food assistance, pledges legal action against trump administration if adopted
.
12
New York City Department of Education
.
Food service jobs
.
13
ACCESS NYC
.
Free meals for New Yorkers this summer
.
Available at https://access.nyc.gov/programs/summer-meals/. Accessed September 2, 2020
14
The Official Website of the City of New York
.
Mayoral accountability
.
15
The Official Website of the City of New York
.
NYC organizational chart
.
Available at: https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/org-chart.page. Accessed September 2, 2020
16
New York City Department of Education
.
DOE organization
.
17
New York City Department of Education
.
Chancellor’s regulations
.
18
American Academy of Pediatrics New York Chapter 3
.
AAP chapter 3 news
.
Available at: http://ny3aap.org/WordpressAAP3/. Accessed September 4, 2020
19
Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) Project Library
.
Free lunch for all
.
20
Turner
L
,
Guthrie
JF
,
Ralston
K
.
Community eligibility and other provisions for universal free meals at school: impact on student breakfast and lunch participation in California public schools
.
Transl Behav Med
.
2019
;
9
(
5
):
931
941
21
Pokorney
PE
,
Chandran
A
,
Long
MW
.
Impact of the community eligibility provision on meal counts and participation in Pennsylvania and Maryland National School Lunch Programs
.
Public Health Nutr
.
2019
;
22
(
17
):
3281
3287
22
Rogus
S
,
Guthrie
J
,
Ralston
K
.
Economic Research Report No. (ERR-255): Characteristics of School Districts Offering Free School Meals to All Students Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program
.
Washington, DC
:
US Department of Agriculture
;
2018
23
Glewwe
P
,
Jacoby
H
,
King
E
.
Early childhood nutrition and academic achievement: A longitudinal analysis
.
J Public Econ
.
2001
;
81
(
3
):
345
368
24
Bradley
BJ
,
Greene
AC
.
Do health and education agencies in the United States share responsibility for academic achievement and health? A review of 25 years of evidence about the relationship of adolescents’ academic achievement and health behaviors
.
J Adolesc Health
.
2013
;
52
(
5
):
523
532
25
Burrows
T
,
Goldman
S
,
Pursey
K
,
Lim
R
.
Is there an association between dietary intake and academic achievement: a systematic review
.
J Hum Nutr Diet
.
2017
;
30
(
2
):
117
140
26
Schwartz
AE
,
Rothbart
MW
.
Let them eat lunch: the impact of universal free meals on student performance
.
J Policy Anal Manage
.
2020
;
39
(
2
):
376
410
27
Thomas
MMC
,
Miller
DP
,
Morrissey
TW
.
Food insecurity and child health
.
Pediatrics
.
2019
;
144
(
4
):
e20190397
28
Liu
J
,
Rehm
CD
,
Onopa
J
,
Mozaffarian
D
.
Trends in diet quality among youth in the United States, 1999-2016
.
JAMA
.
2020
;
323
(
12
):
1161
1174
29
Kinderknecht
K
,
Harris
C
,
Jones-Smith
J
.
Association of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act with dietary quality among children in the US national school lunch program
.
JAMA
.
2020
;
324
(
4
):
359
368

Competing Interests

POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.

FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.