School Lunch

May 15th, 2014  |  Published in Health, slider

De Blasio’s School Food: No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

By Marie-Jose Daoud and Amber Jamieson

A school lunch tray at Midtown West Elementary School. Photo: Marie-Jose Daoud.

A school lunch tray at Midtown West Elementary School. Photo: Marie-Jose Daoud.

New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, came to power promising to make school lunches free for all public school children, not only the low-income ones. But de Blasio’s executive city budget, released on May 9th, did not include the free school lunch program, which will cost $20-24 million, according to City Council estimates. The mayor said the city still had to figure out how to pay for it without jeopardizing federal funding.

Around 780,000 of the 1.1 million children currently enrolled in city schools qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch (which costs parents $0.70) due to their family’s incomes, but only 530,000 of those children are enrolled in the program. One of the reasons, says the City Council, which is pushing hard for universal meals, is the stigma attached to free lunches.

For years, they have been dubbed “free-free,” meaning some children avoid them because of teasing from other children. “They’ll take pictures of them and they’ll put it on Facebook going ‘we caught this person eating free-free’,” said Karina Heath, 15, a student at Urban Assembly for the Music and Arts in Brooklyn.

Every day, New York’s Department of Education is responsible for providing 860,000 meals to New York’s 1.1 million school children (the rest either bring a home-packed lunch or leave school to purchase a meal).

“Universal school lunch is an investment in our children and will ensure all students are able to eat a healthy, nutritious meal,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito told The New York Daily News.

But Ryan Bourke, principal of Midtown West Public School, asks if making school lunches free for all will further constrain the menu. “Would it become even more limited because we’re operating under tighter costs?” he asked.

School lunches: new rules leave a bad taste from Marie-Jose Daoud on Vimeo.

“The Department of Education [DOE] says that each menu needs to include five components,” explained Emily Rojas, the school’s food director, “a meat component or its alternative, fruit, vegetable, grain and milk. Children have the obligation to chose three of these five components.”

Pizza, for example, counts as a grain and as a meat alternative, as the melted cheese is protein.

School lunches are under heavy scrutiny these days. About 18 percent of children and teenagers in the United States are obese or overweight in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign has been pushing for healthier school lunches since 2010.

Menus are created every month by the New York City’s Department of Education’s school lunch team in a central kitchen. The Bloomberg administration had pushed for healthier lunch options, and now a full vegetarian menu and an “alternative menu,” which offers healthier options like grilled tofu and and roasted chicken at no extra cost, are available for schools. But only a smattering of schools throughout the city – usually ones with active health and wellness parent-run committees – offer the alternative menu.

In 2012, new federal regulations were imposed, which ironically made it more difficult to improve the menu. “In the past we were able to really work with the menu and switch things item by item,” said Simone Herbin of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, a group that runs the School Food Network initiative to encourage parents and teachers to get more involved with school lunches. Now, Herbin explains, the easiest way to get healthier items is to switch to the alternative menu, rather than change individual items.

The Midtown West parents’ committee fought for two years to include olive oil instead of regular oil on the menus, which required DOE approval. Now they can buy a specific brand of olive oil found at Trader Joe’s.

And just because healthier options exist, doesn’t mean kids will automatically eat them.

“We tried the alternative menu for two months,” said Elena Ferretti, a member of the parents’ committee at Midtown West. “Children hated it.” A burger will be appealing to a child no matter how bad it is. But overcooked broccoli will not.

Liza Engelberg, director of education at Edible Schoolyard NYC, an organization that runs a kitchen garden program for schools, says that healthy options need to be good to be attractive to children. “A lot of well intended people don’t want to switch to healthier food because they worry the kids won’t eat and they don’t want the kids to be hungry. I think that’s a very legitimate concern,” said Engelberg.

“Ideally, yes, we would like to see free lunches for every kid, we’d like to see better food in the menu,” said principal Bourke. “I just don’t know what powers the mayor has in actually changing those regulations.” Those same federal regulations just prevented Bill de Blasio going through with his program to provide free lunches to all children in NYC public schools. At least until he figures out a way around them.

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