Advocates push for universal free lunch in public schools

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THE BRONX -

Advocates for free lunches in public schools are cooking up support to expand the programs.

Hunger has a negative effect on children's school performance. Taivon Cullum, 12, says free lunches have helped him concentrate, increased his energy and reduced his headaches -- while also relieving stress on his mother, who can use saved money to take care of other household needs.

Taivon is among more than 500,000 low-income public school students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Some politicians and community groups want to expand that program to all students.

If all students got free lunch, Taivon's dad Michael Cullum says, it would reduce bullying.

"If they know you're getting free lunch, they're gonna feel like they're better than you," he says.

The group Community Food Advocates agrees. About 250,000 students who are eligible for free lunches don't participate because they don't want the stigma of appearing impoverished, it says.

And some students come from low-income households that would still greatly benefit, even if they earn more than the current threshold.

"[Many families] simply don't have the money or resources to provide lunch to [their children] every day," says the group Community Food Advocates. "So making sure that lunch is fully accessible and available to all children on equal terms is critical."

The group says that about 3,000 students in just the neighborhood of East New York don't qualify for free meals because their parents' incomes are just above the poverty line.

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