NYC budget director blames cafeteria menu cuts on too many kids eating

A case full of school lunch including milk and fruit.
Some popular items were cut from school cafeterias starting last month, including cookies and french fries. Christian Williams Fernandez/New York City Public Schools. (Christian Williams Fernandez for NYCPublic Schools)

New York City slashed popular items like chicken tenders, dumplings, and cookies from cafeteria menus in February because too many kids were eating, a city official said Monday.

Jacques Jiha, director of the Office of Management and Budget, offered the surprising explanation at a City Council budget hearing in response to questions from Education Committee chair Rita Joseph pressing officials about why “high demand items are being swapped for heat-and-serve options.”

“Bear in mind, the city made some significant investments in school cafeterias,” Jiha said, referring to a $50 million initiative to upgrade middle and high school cafeterias to make them resemble food courts – a project explicitly designed to increase student meal participation.

“So what you end up with, you have a lot of kids hanging out in cafeterias now and eating more and more and more and more,” Jiha continued. “So therefore what they did was, they basically cut some of the items from the menu … because more kids are eating.”

A school food staffer told Chalkbeat in January that the items removed from the February menu were among the pricier offerings.

The menu cuts have already had significant effects – both on kids who were crushed to lose their favorite lunch foods and on manufacturers struggling with the loss of business.

Jiha claimed that the menu trimming was not the result of a budget cut. The $60 million in city funding slashed from the Office of School Food and Nutrition Services in November as part of a sweeping, citywide budget cut ordered by Mayor Eric Adams, was “swapped” for $60 million in new federal funding, Jiha said.

But critics say the city still hasn’t provided a satisfactory explanation for why the midyear menu reductions were necessary if the budget wasn’t cut.

“The City’s November 2023 budget documents included a clear $60 million cut to school food operations,” said Rachel Sabella, the Director of No Kid Hungry New York, in a statement. A budget update in January included the same figure, and the cuts to the February menu “followed soon after, removing higher-priced items that kids loved and that contributed to higher participation--like burritos, dumplings, and French toast sticks.

“If the cut has now been filled with federal revenue … we look forward to seeing the budget updated accordingly,” she added.

An Education Department spokesperson previously told Chalkbeat that costs went up because of a 9% increase in student meal participation compared to last year and rising expenses in unspecified other areas.

But food manufacturers who spoke to Chalkbeat in January said that’s not a convincing rationale for making major menu cuts in the middle of the school year, since the Education Department has significant power to set its own prices, and costs are largely set before the start of the school year.

And when Education Department officials were asked directly about the possibility of menu reductions in January, they appeared to blame the mayor’s budget cuts.

“We are going to have to cut back a little bit due to the [cut],” said Chris Tricarico, senior executive director of the Office of Food and Nutrition Services in a January meeting with the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council. “As all agencies had to reduce a little bit, we’re going to have slight reductions to the menu as far as choices.”

Jiha said the city is currently “modifying the budget and adding federal resources” to support school foods. But when pressed on why that wasn’t translating into the restoration of slashed cafeteria menus on the ground, Jiha said only that Joseph could “trust what I’m saying to you.”

An Education Department spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about if and when any of the axed items would return. There are some minor changes in the March school cafeteria menu compared to February, including the addition of mozzarella sticks as a daily backup options for food court cafeterias. But many of the big-ticket items axed in February like french fries, chicken tenders, cookies, and chicken dumplings, still don’t appear on the March citywide menu.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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