lunch break

City Council members call on city to make school food healthier

Chancellor Dennis Walcott with students in the garden at Brooklyn's P.S. 295, which is participating in the "Garden to Cafe" program, on the first day of school.

The Department of Education has done an admirable job of adding more healthy school lunch options. But more changes — and faster ones — are needed to keep children healthy, according to two City Council members who are sponsoring a resolution to improve school food.

In the last few years, the Office of SchoolFood has added more vegetarian options and swapped out some ingredients for healthier alternatives.

But Brad Lander and Gale Brewer, City Council members from Park Slope and the Upper West Side, think more could be done. “Despite these improvements, critics note that school meals still contain too many “processed” food items, such as breaded chicken nuggets, as well as foods that contain less healthy ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring and saturated fats, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” says their resolution, which they are formally proposing today.

Lander and Brewer want the city to adopt recommendations made recently by the Brooklyn Food Coalition, a group of food and food justice organizations. Among other things, they want 10 percent of food served in schools to be produced locally and schools to go meatless at least one day a week.

They also want the city to be required to publish ingredient lists for food served in schools — something that the department has not always done. When nutrition facts were inadvertently published in 2010, they showed that some food served in cafeterias did not meet the city’s own nutrition guidelines for school bake sale snacks.

Lander and Brewer’s resolution is below, followed by the Brooklyn Food Coalition’s “Roadmap for Healthy, Sustainable School Food.”

Resolution calling upon the New York City Department of Education’s Office of School Food to increase the health of food options in school lunches and breakfasts by implementing the recommendations of the Brooklyn Food Coalition’s “Roadmap for Healthy, Sustainable School Food.”

By Council Members Lander and Brewer

Whereas, The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is the largest public school system in the United States serving approximately 1.1 million students; and

Whereas, DOE’s Office of School Food, known as “SchoolFood,” is the largest school food service provider in the United States, providing over 860,000 total meals each day to students in over 1,600 locations including City public elementary, middle, special education, high schools, charter and some non-public schools; and

Whereas, In recent years, SchoolFood has taken a number of steps to improve the health and nutrition of school meals and to expand access to more students; and

Whereas, SchoolFood serves breakfast free of charge to all students and has instituted breakfast-in-the-classroom programs in 271 schools; and

Whereas, In 2004, SchoolFood hired an executive chef to introduce new recipes and to reformulate popular menu items to make them healthier and more enticing to students; and

Whereas, DOE has also made significant investments in kitchen and cafeteria infrastructure in recent years, including the installation of more than 600 salad bars in schools throughout the City; and

Whereas, Additionally, SchoolFood has piloted several programs, such as the State-funded Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, in a small number of City schools; and

Whereas, Another initiative, “Garden to Café” was started by SchoolFood and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets in collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension, GreenThumb, and more than 20 community-based organizations; and

Whereas, The goals of “Garden to Café” are to promote vegetarian options, connect students to local food and farming, increase awareness of school gardening, and provide opportunities to integrate school gardening and school lunch; and

Whereas, According to the DOE, SchoolFood has also reduced sodium, fat and cholesterol content in meals served; and

Whereas, In addition, SchoolFood has replaced white flour pasta with whole grain pasta, replaced whole milk with fat free and low fat milk varieties and has included more fresh fruits and vegetables in school meals; and

Whereas, Despite these improvements, critics note that school meals still contain too many “processed” food items, such as breaded chicken nuggets, as well as foods that contain less healthy ingredients, including high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring and saturated fats, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; and,

Whereas, In December 2010, a new federal law, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (“the Act”), was passed which would improve the nutrition of school meals; and

Whereas, Among other things, the Act provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches, helps communities establish local farm to school networks and builds on efforts by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of commodity foods that schools receive from USDA and use in their breakfast and lunch programs; and

Whereas, A number of the Act’s provisions, such as the development of new nutritional standards and the increase in federal meal reimbursement, will not go into effect before the 2012-2013 school year at the earliest; and

Whereas, New York City’s 1.1 million public school students should not have to wait for those federal changes to take effect before having access to healthier food options in school meals; and

Whereas, The Brooklyn Food Coalition recently issued its “Roadmap for Healthy, Sustainable School Food;” and

Whereas, The Roadmap calls for progressive measures to increase the local sourcing of school food, such as purchasing 10 percent of food locally, expansion of the “Garden to Café” program, and increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks; and

Whereas, The Roadmap calls for improving the wholesomeness of foods served by improving access to salad bars, offering at least one fresh fruit daily, ensuring that vegetables served are fresh and that 60 percent of meals offered are from unprocessed ingredients, offering only whole grain products, ensuring access to pure water and eliminating sweetened milk, and adopting meatless meals at least once a week; and

Whereas, The Roadmap calls for integrating this food program into school curricula and building on the work of existing school wellness committees to help guide this initiative and make it work in each participating school; and

Whereas, The Roadmap also calls for reducing the food and packaging waste stream through more effective recycling, composting, and by working towards the elimination of polystyrene foam trays; and

Whereas, The Roadmap calls for mandating public access to ingredient lists and items purchased; and

Whereas, The Roadmap calls for removing vending machines and all “competitive” foods in elementary and middle schools, and for providing only healthy choices in any vending machines in high schools; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Council of the City of New York calls upon the New York City Department of Education’s Office of School Food to increase the health of food options in school lunches and breakfasts by implementing the recommendations of the Brooklyn Food Coalition’s “Roadmap for Healthy, Sustainable School Food.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.