First Person

We Don’t Have Time To Waste

A serious grassroots movement to improve school food and reverse the trend of childhood obesity is afoot in our city. That message was immediately apparent when we attended the School Food Rocks Conference organized by Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander last month. Also apparent at the conference: Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are conspicuously absent from the discussion. Since no fundamental change can happen without their support, we thought we’d let them know about the conference and some of the organizations working to stem the tide of disease in our city’s children.

The conference began with introductory speeches by Chef Jorge Collazo, the Department of Education’s first executive chef, and Chef Ann Cooper, widely known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” who currently heads the school nutrition program in Boulder, Colo. Both chefs went to the Culinary Institute of America and both spent time living and cooking in Vermont. But the similarities pretty much end there. Chef Collazo oversees the largest school district in the country with 1,600 schools serving over 1 million students. The Boulder Valley School District, on the other hand, comprises just 55 schools with 23,000 students. The sizes of the bureaucracies in which they work might help to explain Chef Cooper’s visionary program for improving school food, which includes getting regionally produced organic milk into every school, versus Chef Collazo’s more modest achievements, such as getting Barilla whole grain pasta served in city schools.

Despite the unruly size of the New York City public school system, pockets of change are happening thanks to parents, educators, non-profit organizations, and the DOE’s Office of School Food. Here’s a list of just some of the organizations that participated in the conference and the programs they offer to provide healthier meals to city schoolchildren and to raise awareness about good nutrition. (If you’re interested in a program for your school, contact the organization at their website.)

  • Wellness in the Schools operates the Cook for Kids program in 20 city schools. Under Chef Bill Telepan, WITS sends culinary school graduates into public schools to prepare fresh meals from scratch and to educate families about the importance of eating whole, unprocessed food.
  • NY Coalition for Healthy School Food has a pilot program called Project Cool School Food that serves cholesterol-free, high-fiber plant-based entrees in 30 NYC schools.
  • NYC Green Schools, in partnership with Meatless Mondays, has launched a Meatless Monday campaign to get more NYC schools to opt for a plant-based meal on Monday to reduce students’ consumption of saturated fat and lesson schools’ carbon footprint.
  • CookShop Classroom is a federally funded nutrition education program of the Food Bank for NYC that uses hands-on exploration and cooking activities to foster children’s enjoyment and consumption of healthy food, and their appreciation for good nutrition.
  • Teen Battle Chef is a youth development program designed for middle and high-school students that explores culinary, food systems and gardening education in a fun and interactive way. The program can be implemented by school staff to combat the growing obesity problem in youth.
  • The American Heart Association encourages Wellness Committees at schools to lead Jump Rope and Hoops for Heart events at their schools. These events are among the suggested community physical activities by the state wellness policy.

At the conference, Chef Cooper was not shy about illuminating how our school food is failing our children and contributing to the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, high-cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease in our youth. In case the mayor and chancellor have not had an opportunity to hear Chef Cooper speak, we’d thought we’d share with them a few of the shocking statistics that were part of her presentation and add a couple of our own.

  • Today’s children are the first generation of kids expected to live shorter lives than their parents as a direct result of the food they eat.
  • The Center for Disease Control says that of the children born in 2000, 1 in 3 Caucasians and 1 in 2 African-American and Hispanics will develop diabetes in their lifetime.  Most of them will develop it before they graduate high-school, which means 40-45% of all school-aged children could be insulin-dependent within a decade.
  • We have eight-year olds who are on cholesterol-lowering medication and being treated for high-blood pressure.
  • Americans, including our children, consume roughly 5 lbs. of pesticides every year.

As Chef Cooper said in her TED talk, “We’re feeding our children to death.” So, given the health epidemic we face and the skyrocketing medical costs our city will have to pay if we do nothing to help improve our children’s health, why have Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein been so conspicuously silent when it comes to implementing policies that will improve the nutritional value of school food for all the city’s children without any additional cost to the city? Why are NYC schools still serving flavored milk with its four teaspoons of sugar in every carton, which Chef Cooper calls “soda in drag,” when the CDC has told us the horrifying rates of diabetes we can expect in today’s youth?  Why are processed foods, like chicken nuggets and mozzarella sticks, which are loaded with salt, saturated fat, and chemicals still on the menu at our schools? Why are vending machines selling junk food still permitted in our school hallways when we know these foods are doing as much for our children’s health as a pack of cigarettes?

As a country, we have a moral duty not to feed our children food that we know is making them sick. We are urging Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein to sit down with the NYC organizations working to improve school food and to bring nutrition education into our classrooms to come up with cost-free policies that will stem the tide of disease among our youth. We urge the mayor and chancellor to meet with these organizations now, because as Chef Ann Cooper said at the conference, we don’t have time to waste.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.