Are NYC Public School Lunches Feeding a Health Crisis?

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

Andrea Strong
Heated
Published in
7 min readApr 30, 2019

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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…

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Andrea Strong
Heated
Writer for

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.