A New Future for School Food

Cafeterias will never be the same — and that’s a good thing

Middle school kids holding their trays wait in a school lunch line.

What will fall look like for New York City’s 1.1 million public school children? Blended learning? Staggered schedules? Rotating days? While not much is certain, this much is: Crowded, raucous cafeterias are a thing of the past. Our children, for now at least, will no longer be bundled together at tables, eating, chatting, shouting, and laughing during their lunch periods. Instead, meals will happen in socially distanced classrooms and all communal food services — think salad bars and fruit bowls — will be eliminated.

These school food changes are obviously essential to our children’s safety and health, but they cannot be seen as a reason to stop serving our kids the nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables their bodies need. This coming September offers New York City’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) a unique opportunity to implement massive changes: to introduce culturally relevant scratch-cooked meals and remove sugary beverages from the lunch line — and serve as an example to be emulated by school districts across the country. It could not happen at a more critical time.

Nearly one-third of children and youth in the state of New York are obese or overweight, and childhood obesity has tripled over the past three decades. In New York City, 40 percent of public school students aged 6 to 12 are overweight or obese. What’s more, children as young as 8 years old are on cholesterol-lowering and blood pressure medications. Fifty percent of children under 15 have fatty streaks in their arteries, the beginning stages of heart disease.

This data is alarming in a regular year, but during this pandemic, it is terrifying. While there are many mysteries surrounding Covid-19, this much is true: People with diet-related disease are at a higher risk. A paper published in JAMA about New York State’s largest health system found that of those who died of Covid-related complications, 57 percent had hypertension, 41 percent were obese, and 34 percent had diabetes.

Coronavirus has also disproportionately affected populations already experiencing health and wealth disparities — mainly low-income and communities of color whose children rely on school lunch. When those calories come from highly processed foods like those served by New York City’s public schools— bag-to-oven foods such as chicken nuggets, hamburgers, pizza, mozzarella sticks, and all manner of carnival food — our kids are not going to thrive. Studies have shown that highly processed foods set children up for diet-related diseases for life.

The quality of school meals is an issue of equity — a word Chancellor Richard Carranza has been using since his arrival in New York City in 2018. Two-thirds of kids eating school meals don’t have the option of bringing packed lunch from home. Especially if we want to dig deep into how systemic racism affects communities of color, all of our children deserve healthy, nutritious meals, not just those who are privileged enough to have families with the means to provide lunch from home.

So far, Carranza has not unveiled any plans for school food. Last week, he shared a letter in which he outlined what the reopening of New York City’s public schools may look like this fall. He mentioned trauma-informed education, blended learning, social distancing, split schedules, rolling starts, and revised building operations. What he neglected to mention was school food. Given the correlation between Covid-19 and diet-related disease, this is a glaring omission.

Let me be clear: The pivot to grab-and-go in March was the equivalent of turning around the Titanic on a dime — and the city is not serving children but adults and seniors. Grab-and-go meals have been a crucial backstop against food insecurity; according to most recent data, New York City is now impressively and routinely serving 500,000 to 600,000 meals a day.

Grab-and-go meals have been a crucial backstop against food insecurity; according to most recent data, New York City is now impressively and routinely serving 500 to 600,000 meals a day.

But come September, there can be a more thoughtful approach to school food. First, the DOE can stop serving fruit juice and chocolate milk, beverages that are linked to weight gain, shorter stature, and cavities. They also can affect blood pressure and increase cholesterol. The DOE would not only be promoting children’s well-being, but it would also be saving an enormous amount of money. According to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the DOE spent $12.8 million on chocolate milk in the 2018 fiscal year and $12.1 million in FY 2019. It’s currently in the process of renewing a fruit juice contract with Sun Cup for $3 million.

An elementary school boy drinks chocolate milk.
An elementary school boy drinks chocolate milk.

New York City would not be an outlier; more and more school districts have been removing chocolate milk from their menus. Chocolate milk is banned in Boulder (which also bans juice); Minneapolis; Washington, D.C.; Montgomery County, Maryland; and, most recently, San Francisco. Even New York City’s Department of Corrections phased out juice and chocolate milk because of their ties to costly obesity-related diseases.

Even New York City’s Department of Corrections phased out juice and chocolate milk because of their ties to costly obesity-related diseases.

Instead of continuing to rely on highly processed bag-to-oven foods, the chancellor should prioritize fresh, scratch-made food that reflects the diversity of our communities. If hot meals are going to be served, look to the scratch-cooked menus developed by OFNS partners Wellness in the Schools and Brigaid — chicken and broccoli vegetable fried rice, cucumber ranch turkey burgers on ciabatta, chicken cacciatore with whole-grain pasta and roasted zucchini, black bean and cheddar quesadillas with salsa and corn, chicken sabroso with yellow rice and plantains, veggie chili, and more. If it’s only cold lunch, OFNS must ensure the options are packed with veggies and freshly made proteins — grilled chicken, roast turkey, beans, grains, legumes, hummus, and more — along with freshly prepared, meal-sized salads, in addition to whole fruit.

This is not a pipe dream. It is, in fact, quite achievable. Researchers from Columbia University have found that returning to scratch cooking is an attainable goal for the nation’s largest school district. Their report — “Cooking Outside the Box: How a Scratch Cooking Pilot in the Bronx is Reshaping Meals In New York City Schools” — evaluated a DOE scratch-cooking pilot run by chef Daniel Giusti’s Brigaid at several public schools in the Bronx during the 2018-2019 school year. The study found that the pilot program was a success and could be scaled. The researchers emphasized that both food and labor costs increased initially, but leveled off with time and scale. The study demonstrates that school food can go in a different direction. From where I sit, it must.

We are in the midst of a pandemic that has devastated communities and families and wrecked lives and livelihoods, particularly low-income families of color. Even in such uncertain times, opportunity awaits. We must seize it to create a detailed school food plan that prioritizes the health of our children so that the next pandemic does not take them.

Andrea Strong is a journalist covering food policy and the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance.

Andrea Strong is a journalist who covers the intersection of food, policy, business and law. She is also the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance.

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