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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.