NYC Public Schools Can Serve Real Food, But Will They?
A new study finds it’s doable — and the long-term benefits are worth it
Researchers from Columbia University have found that returning to scratch cooking is an attainable goal for the nation’s largest school district, New York City, which feeds over 900,000 public school children a day.
Their report — Cooking Outside the Box: How a Scratch Cooking Pilot in the Bronx is Reshaping Meals In New York City Schools — evaluated a scratch-cooking pilot run by chef Daniel Giusti’s Bridgaid at several public schools in the Bronx during the 2018–2019 school year.
“This pilot demonstrates a successful shift away from processed foods currently on the menu is possible,” said Pam Koch, executive director of Columbia University’s Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. “The potential positive impacts of scratch cooking on students’ diets, health, academic achievement, and sense of community are enormous.”
Laying the groundwork
The pilot program was developed by Eric Goldstein, who ran school food in New York City for over a decade before he was dismissed. “I remember looking at pictures from cafeterias from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s,” he said last week in a phone interview. “There was home cooking. It was real food. That’s what I wanted to recapture. I knew I had to make this my №1 priority for New York City — to serve simple, scratch-cooked, healthy food to kids.”
The move to scratch cooking was inspired by the benefits of real food (as opposed to highly processed bag-to-oven meals) on children’s health. The CDC reports that schools play an important part in reducing the risk of developing diet-related maladies like diabetes and heart disease, so a shift to scratch cooking would be crucial for school children who consume up to half of their daily calories at school. When highly processed foods are introduced at a young age, studies show it sets kids up for diet-related disease in the long term.
In September 2018 — exactly 100 years after the NYC Board of Education assumed responsibility for school meals — Goldstein green-lit a Return to Scratch Cooking Pilot Program with Brigaid, a company that had previously brought scratch cooking to public schools in New London, Connecticut. “Brigaid made sense at the time as they were doing it successfully in New London, which mirrored some of the demographics that we had in areas of New York,” he said.
Goldstein chose the Bronx, the borough with the highest incidence of diet-related disease in the city, as the location of the pilot. At the Morris Academy complex, which services four high schools, and at P.S/I.S 218, a K-8 school, Giusti began serving a menu of homestyle meals such as hummus with freshly baked flatbreads, spaghetti and meatballs, stewed chicken and rice, turkey chili, pizza on homemade crust, and sides like slow-roasted carrots and crispy kale chips.
The challenges and benefits of scratch cooking
This study had three goals: to document the systems change that occurred in the two kitchens; to understand its impact on students, their families and staff; and to provide implementation guidance to facilitate citywide expansion of scratch-cooked food service — defined as “food service that prioritizes the preparation of meals or snacks on a daily basis at or near the site of consumption with ingredients in their most basic form.”
The study found that the pilot program was a success and could be scaled, though transforming school cafeterias would require a lot — the procurement of over 170 new ingredients; infrastructure upgrades, such as plumbing and electrical work; special equipment (such as dishwashers); redesigning kitchens for actual cooking; culinary training; and enlisting community support.
The study emphasized that both food and labor costs increased initially, but leveled off with time and scale. For instance, at the Morris campus, food costs increased 6 percent from the previous year, but at P.S./I.S. 218, where the pilot was rolled out six months later, food costs decreased by 12 percent from the previous year. Researchers attributed the decrease to what was learned at the first site and also emphasized that they would expect food costs to drop more as more ingredients were purchased across the school system.
Labor costs were trickier. For the pilot, cooks peeled ginger root, sliced pounds of raw onions, cleaned raw chicken thighs, and measured multiple spices. The prep work was a significant shift from serving pre-packaged food such as chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, burgers, and beef patties that just needed to be heated to a safe temperature.
Because of the substantive difference in labor, costs were expected to increase by 40 percent. But during the first three months of scratch cooking, labor costs averaged 176 percent higher than the previous year. However, in the last three months of the pilot, labor costs averaged 64 percent higher. And in the final month, labor costs were only 28 percent higher, well below the projected increase of 40 percent. “This implies that as staff become more skilled at scratch cooking, costs will decrease,” said Research Project Director Raynika Trent. Costs would also decrease further, she said, with more participation.
Student participation, however, declined by about 10 percent across the two sites. Trent and her research team were not deterred. “With more menu familiarity, nutrition education, and school community engagement, we would expect participation to climb,” she said. The report also details specific steps that principals can take to make school food more of a focus, including tastings, lengthening the time children have to eat lunch, conducting educational activities that teach about food and nutrition and are connected to school lunch, and promoting school meals.
The new executive director of the Office of Food and Nutrition Services, Chris Tricarico, has already introduced a principal’s guide for school food service managers to start more engagement with kids and families around school food.
Perhaps the most encouraging finding in the report came from the pilot schools’ longtime kitchen staff. “We saw an incredible amount of pride in what they had accomplished and in the food they were serving the kids,” said Trent. “Given the increase in work and training up to skill, they could have put in requests to change schools, but they all stayed and returned.”
Scaling the pilot to 1,800 schools citywide is the next hurdle. Koch and her team caution that in order for all public school students to have scratch-cooked meals every day, New York City will have to make serious investments in kitchen infrastructure, staff training and advancement, and generating student enthusiasm for these new school meals.
Researchers are encouraged by widespread City Council support. Speaker Corey Johnson’s Growing Food Equity Plan, introduced in August, included a bill that will require the Department of Education to come up with a scratch-cooking implementation plan, including a budget and timeline for fully transitioning to scratch-cooked food service across NYC. The bill is expected to pass early next year.
OFNS, through its spokesperson Miranda Barbot, also indicated support for the pilot’s expansion. “We’re adding more schools to our scratch-cooking pilot this year, and have been successful in using the recipes we develop in these kitchens to enhance the menu citywide,” she said.
Other advocates are also hopeful. “I think there is definitely interest and political will to expand,” said Liz Accles, director of Community Food Advocates, the group responsible for bringing universal free lunch to New York City. “I do think that the ultimate scale of the rollout remains a big question. The other important point is that OFNS has incorporated some of the scratch recipes — roasted carrots, barbecue chicken — citywide. I think that is a very important development.”
But advocates agree that the costs of walking away from a scratch-cooking program are too high, especially when children will be paying the price.
“There is so much research that ultraprocessed foods are not good for our health, especially in children,” said Koch. “This report makes it clear that we can do this. It is worth soldiering on.”