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.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”