Students in some city schools get to eat mountains of fresh produce straight from local farms. In others, ketchup counts as a serving of vegetables.
The disparity is in some ways a product of increased attention to food quality in schools, from Jamie Oliver’s Emmy-Award-winning reality show “Food Revolution” to First Lady Michele Obama’s calls for better school food to combat childhood obesity. You’d think that in such a climate, with a mayor committed to public health issues, we’d start to see some genuine improvements to the food in city’s public schools. Unfortunately, in many ways we’re seeing just the opposite.
A $24 million budget cut to the Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood is not only limiting meal choices at lunch time and decreasing the hours of kitchen staff, but also reducing the number of schools participating in the Universal Free Meals Program. The new school year started with nearly 100 fewer city schools taking part in the program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to all students in predominantly low-income schools regardless of their income, residency, or citizenship status. Poor students in the schools are still eligible for free lunch, but filling out the forms to qualify for free or reduced lunch is a barrier to many families. In addition, the universal meals program eliminates the stigma of being a reduced or free lunch student, thereby increasing the likelihood of children participating in the program. Schools that provide universal breakfast in the classroom report increases in student attentiveness and attendance and generally improved learning environments. As City Councilman Robert Jackson, chair of the Education Committee, said, “Balancing the budget on the bellies of hungry students is just plain cruel.”
Budget cuts will also limit the number of hot meals served at lunch from two to one for elementary schools and from three to two for middle and high schools. This may not seem like such a dramatic setback, but with SchoolFood’s practice of serving children what they like in an effort to boost sales, a 6-year-old could be served chicken nuggets one day, mozzarella sticks the next, followed by hamburger and fries, and pizza on Fridays. Cutting back the hours of kitchen staff will also greatly limit the possibility of actually getting fresh local produce into the schools, since there won’t be the staff to prepare and cook it.
SchoolFood has adopted the strategy of accommodating parents and educators who demand healthier food for their students while failing to implement policies that ensure more nutritious meals for all the city’s children. As a result, a very inequitable situation is developing in our school cafeterias where some schools, for example, have salad bars offering fresh vegetables on a daily basis, while other schools get to have ketchup count as one of the required vegetable servings for the day.
So in the end, what has all the public attention on school food reform gotten for the vast majority of New York City’s children? Less access to free and reduced meals, fewer meal choices, and less likelihood of having meals prepared with fresh ingredients. Farm-to-table pilot programs that serve a handful of schools may provide great photo opportunities for our government officials, but they have yet to make a difference for the vast majority of the city’s students. It’s time for DOE officials to sit down with parents and school food activists to discuss what can be done in this time of economic austerity to provide healthier meals for all the city’s children. The improvements in school food enjoyed at certain schools can serve as an example of what can and should be done in all the city’s schools to eliminate the growing disparity among our school cafeterias.