Are NYC Public School Lunches Feeding a Health Crisis?

The city’s 900,000 public school kids deserve better

Wellness in the Schools’ Executive Chef Bill Telepan in a public school lunchroom that serves the “alternative menu,” which contains more from-scratch cooking and less highly processed food. It is only available if a principal requests it. All photos: Wellness In The Schools.

I’m a writer who has covered the business of food for the past 20 years; naturally, when my older child started public school five years ago, I was curious about what schools were feeding kids and decided to volunteer in the lunchroom. There, I found a menu of popcorn chicken, mozzarella sticks, pizza, burgers, and Tostitos taco bowls filled with ground beef.

I was disheartened. I had seen excellent school food in places like Berkeley and Boulder. But New York City — which has led the way in minimum wage reform, paid family and sick leave, and pre-K for all — has fallen behind, and our kids are paying the price.

Nearly half of New York City elementary school children and Head Start children are at an unhealthy weight. And across the U.S., children as young as 8 years old are on cholesterol or blood pressure medication.

To make matters worse, President Donald Trump has rolled back nutrition protections of Michelle Obama’s landmark Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. In addition to bringing more chocolate milk to the lunch line, efforts to limit sodium have been delayed or partially eliminated.

Kids spend an average of over six hours a day in school and consume up to one-half of their daily calories in the building. When a government organization is responsible for feeding nearly a million children a day, there is a responsibility, if not a legal duty, to ensure that its meals are not feeding our health crisis. Yet, “this is the first generation of kids who will not outlive their parents,” says Fresh Med’s Dr. Robert Graham, a chef and internist.

When highly processed foods are introduced at a young age, it sets kids up for diet-related disease in the long term. “From a very young age kids are learning what a meal should look like, so it’s imperative to make that meal as healthy as possible to set them on the right dietary path for life,” says Bettina Elias Seigel, author the forthcoming book,Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World.”

In addition, the health crisis hits low-income families hardest, Seigel says, since kids eating the fast-food lunches are those whose parents don’t have the time or money to send lunch from home.

If unprocessed, scratch-cooked food is best for our children’s development and lifelong health, why aren’t our schools serving it? That question is relevant everywhere, but perhaps especially in New York City, the country’s biggest city and a world-class trendsetter.

Nutrition education in public schools is shown to help children develop positive attitudes toward fruits and vegetables, improve academic performance, and lower absenteeism.

Who determines what kids eat for lunch?

New York City’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) feeds nearly 900,000 children in 1,970 schools. It is the largest public school system in the U.S. and only second to the military in terms of the number of people it feeds. Yet OFNS is woefully underfunded: Its budget is $550 million, which boils down to about $1.40 average food cost per meal across all of its breakfast and lunch menus.

Even so, OFNS has made some changes for the better. Thanks to the advocacy of Community Food Advocates’ Lunch4Learning campaign, there’s free lunch for all students, regardless of income. This has resulted in a 4.4 percent increase in kids eating school lunch, or 26,000 more meals served per day to New York City’s hungry children.

New York City’s nutrition standards in many instances exceed U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, and the city has a list of prohibited ingredients that includes sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, preservatives such as ammonium hydroxide, and flavor enhancers such as MSG. And 1,500 schools offer salad bars.

There’s also a widely available alternative menu for New York City schools, which introduces three vegetarian meals a week and several scratch-cooked meals like black bean quesadillas or zucchini parmesan.

Initially developed by Wellness in the Schools, a New York City-based national nonprofit, the menu costs less than the “regular menu” to produce; the city’s K-8 “regular” menu is $1.22 per meal; the alternative menu is $1.12. (The $1.40 cost mentioned above is an average food cost per meal across all OFNS menus).

Unfortunately, a principal has to request the alternative menu, which requires parents to launch a full-scale fight for healthier options — and many principals are not swayed. The result is that some kids get real home-cooking, others get fast food all week long.

There are other layers, too: There’s an entirely vegetarian menu and a garden-to-cafe program, in which a DOE chef travels to schools with any sort of garden or growing station — raised bed, hydroponic, or grow tower — and creates a dish from the food the kids have grown.

The most high-profile initiative is the scratch-cooking pilot with Brigaid, led by Dan Giusti, the former head chef of Noma in Copenhagen. This is real food, cooked by real people, with a menu of items like catch-of-the-day fish sandwiches or chili con carne, along with a fruit-and-salad bar.

Giusti launched in the Bronx at Morris Academy High School in the fall and has just begun cooking at his second Bronx location, PS/IS 218. He plans to continue in the Bronx through the end of the 2019–2020 school year. No plans have been set beyond the pilot.

Amid these efforts, the OFNS has begun a baseline audit with the Center for Good Food Purchasing. Launched in Los Angeles in 2012, the Center’s program evaluates public institutions’ purchasing habits on the basis of five core values: local economies, health, valued workforce, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. Schools are ranked and given a toolkit and a strategy to boost compliance.

City officials say it’s critical work, but they’re acting slowly. “This work is a top priority for OFNS,” says Chris Tricarico, acting executive director. Keep in mind the agency has been searching for a new executive director since Dennis Barrett resigned in 2017.

In addition, the Good Food Purchasing Program completed its baseline assessment of School Food at the end of November 2018. Cities like Boston, Austin, and Washington, D.C., have already adopted Good Food Purchasing Program standards, but the mayor’s office has yet to share the results of the audit with advocates working on the Good Food Purchasing Policy Campaign.

Big-picture delays like this don’t help. The city should do more, faster.

Fruit and vegetable tastings in cafeterias are one way nonprofits are encouraging children to become healthy life-long eaters. Currently, NYC does not mandate nutrition education, and it should.

The cost of real food

To create a public school system in which all children have access to healthy, appealing, homemade food would require a significant change in the school food funding paradigm. Its current form doesn’t come anywhere close to the investment required to support our children’s health and future with real food.

Just how much would it cost to revamp the system and return to home-cooked meals? For the sake of argument let’s agree then that this number is large, perhaps several hundred million dollars. Given how much it costs us on the back end — $1.72 trillion in health care costs related to obesity in 2016 — it would still be a sound investment.

Other cities are finding ways to fund healthy scratch cooking. During the midterms, Denver passed Ordinance 302, placed on the ballot by the Healthy Food For Denver Kids campaign, which established a nominal sales tax (less than a penny on any $10 purchase) to fund healthy food access and education programs for youth in Denver over 10 years. D.C. recently passed The Healthy Student Act Amendment, which includes a provision for a central kitchen to facilitate scratch cooking.

In New York, schools can trim the low-hanging fruit. It can ban processed foods, starting with processed meats, and remove sugary beverages like sweetened milk; the NYC Department of Health itself urges schools to ban chocolate milk, and yet it’s still served. It can add fresh sliced fruit to the service line, which research shows gets students to eat more fruit at school. It can also get rid of the fast-food menu and adopt the alternative menu for all schools.

Critics of the alternative menu argue that removing junk food will cause participation to drop because students will turn their noses up at the more healthful scratch-cooked items on that menu. Their argument: Change the food, kids won’t eat, and they’ll go home hungry. In some cases, this does happen, in part because OFNS has made the alternative menu so unappealing to children, with options that are too mature for kids. Right now the alternative menu includes chickpea tagine and zucchini parmesan, not exactly ideal for 6-year-olds. Roast chicken or stir-fry vegetable noodles would fare better. But even so, changing food is not enough.

The future of school food requires hands-on nutrition and culinary education. According to a National Wellness Policy Study, well-implemented nutrition education can do a world of good for our children — it can help them obtain healthy weights and BMIs, increase fruit and vegetable consumption, develop positive attitudes toward those foods, and improve academic performance. Yet research published by the Tisch Food Center shows that nearly half the city’s schools lack access to external food and nutrition education programs. This must change. Only when we have both will we have a system that educates and nurtures the whole child.

We have the opportunity to improve lives — starting with the 900,000 children New York City public schools feed every day. Shouldn’t we start now?

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.

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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