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.