mystery meat

Some cafeteria offerings don't meet city's own bake sale rules

Parents who are interested in knowing the exact ingredients or sugar content of the food their children encounter in the school cafeteria often run up against a brick wall: the Office of SchoolFood’s public website.

The site site lists nutritional information like calories, fat, sodium, protein and dietary fiber. It also assures parents that there are no trans fats or additives like artificial sweeteners and MSG in the food. But the site doesn’t tell parents what is in their children’s meals.

Until now. The Community Section’s “NYC Green Schools” columnist, Elizabeth Puccini, recently learned that James Subudhi, the environmental policy and advocacy coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, had discovered a back-ways route to the Office of SchoolFood’s directory of ingredients that is not accessible to the public from its main website. Puccini asked Subudhi to share instructions on how parents can access the information:

Because NYC Green Schools believes strongly that parents and students have a right to know the ingredients of the food served in our city’s schools —  that this transparency is a must to ensure the food in our schools is safe and nutritious — we invited James to write about his discovery.

Puccini told us that when she looked at the lists, she was startled to find potential allergens hiding in surprising places. For example, the city’s “fully cooked boiled beef patty” contains textured vegetable protein and caramel color — a problem for unsuspecting students who are allergic to soy. The city’s allergy policy is to offer students a variety of meals in component parts, so that students with allergies can pick and choose from foods that they can eat.

A quick look through the ingredient lists and nutritional food shows that there is a lot of healthy food offered. But it also shows that some products on the city’s cafeteria menus do not meet the nutritional guidelines the city established for bake sale goods last year. Those rules — which prompted controversy because they excluded homemade goods while allowing questionably healthy products like Pop-Tarts and Doritos — require grain-based bake sale snacks to include at least two grams of fiber. No more than 35 percent of bake sale goods’ total calories may come from sugar or fat, and no more than 10 percent of calories may come from saturated fat.

Compare that to the city’s “pancakes with cinnamon flavor,” a grain-based breakfast food with only half a gram of dietary fiber. A croissant and a cinnamon crescent roll offered both have more than 35 percent of their calories from fat. One portion of the mozzarella sticks served in elementary and middle schools provides 40 percent of the saturated fat that the Food and Drug Administration recommends adults consume in a day. One slice of the French bread pizza contains 35 percent of the FDA’s recommended saturated fat intake.

Read Subudhi’s instructions on how to access the ingredients lists here, and share what you find there in the comments section.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”