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Improving School Food

by Vanessa Witenko and Elisia Lau, Jan 17, 2006
 

Kids have been complaining about school food for as long as schools have had cafeterias. But in the past two years, the Department of Education has made it a priority to improve the 860,000 meals it serves to New York City public kids every day. And, while everyone agrees there is a long, long way to go, there are a few hopeful signs.

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Many high schools now have inviting salad bars. At Beacon High School in Manhattan, the salad bar has food so fresh and flavorful that even faculty members eat it. Throughout the city, fatty cold cuts have been replaced with white meat chicken, and cafeterias serve whole wheat bread and baked chips instead of white bread and fried chips, according to school food director David Berkowitz. About 90 new recipes have been created in the past two years, including veggie burgers and chili topped with corn bread. Favorites include an Asian-ginger chicken drumstick without the bone, quesadillas, and a riblet, a boneless beef and turkey dish.

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Berkowitz said the Department of Education got more students to eat fruit by wrapping individual slices of pineapple, orange and apple. Soon a single carrot will be individually wrapped, in hopes that the success of fruit can be passed along to vegetables. “The apples are very, very popular,” Berkowitz said. “They’re actually eating the fruit.”

In the next month or two, high school students will get to eat with a fork, knife, and spoon – not the spork, a combination spoon and fork that makes kids feel as if they are in prison. Student won’t be slopping food onto foam trays, instead they will have black paper plates for pizza and a boat-shaped dish for burgers (Unfortunately, elementary and middle school students will have to wait for such cool plates.)

OFTEN STILL 'WORSE THAN DOG FOOD'

But despite the changes, complaints are legion. Edmond Figueiroa, a sixth grader at PS 142 on the Lower East Side, said he got a moldy croissant at breakfast. High school teenagers say they would rather starve throughout the day than eat from their school cafeteria. One principal said she provides her students with granola bars because school lunches are so bad. “Some of this stuff, I wouldn’t even feed to a dog,” she said.

At the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn "the food they get just isn’t really great,” said the school’s principal. Pierrette Lee, a tenth grader there, settles for juice and a cookie, instead of the boneless chicken that looks “all messed up...I think they really cook it in a way that they wouldn’t eat it for themselves,” said Lee. A classmate eats a bag of chips for lunch. “I only eat from this line,” the tenth grader said, indicating the line serving packaged snacks.

A big part of the problem stems from the fact that most food is not prepared on the school premises. Berkowitz says only 5 to 10 percent of the items cooked in the school kitchen are from scratch because of high labor costs, the demands for consistency, and the challenge of serving thousands of students. Cafeteria workers simply reheat frozen food. The result is preservative-filled, frozen food that lacks the nutritional value and flavor found in fresh vegetables.

“They’re not trained cooks. They’re trained thaws,” said Kate Adamick, former director of SchoolFood Plus, a non-profit agency that works with the Department of Education to improve school food.

About 25 percent of school kitchens do not have a required hood system, which sucks hot air and grease into a vent and will drop a foam substance in the event of a fire. Without this exhaust system, regular ovens that produce the best cooking cannot be used. Instead, cooks must rely on convection ovens, which blow hot air over food and are used for reheating rather than to cook raw ingredients. About 100 kitchens are set for renovations including the addition of an exhaust system in the next three years.

Kitchens are not equipped with dishwashers, which means schools must use disposable plates, trays and utensils.

The Office of Food Services, now called School Food, keeps track of how happy the students are with the food by monitoring the number of meals being served. A drop in the number of students eating indicates a problem. Additionally, three to four student interns go into the schools every couple of months and do a “waste study,” where they look into the garbage and see what has been thrown out. Berkowitz also encourages parents to send their comments about food to his office. "We take every [complaint] seriously," he said.

FIVE STAR CAFETERIAS

Some schools prove that school lunch can be a lot more appealing than lumpy gruel slopped onto foam trays. At the following four schools, lunch is an enjoyable time to socialize with friends over a tasty, healthy meal:

CS 67: At this school in the West Farms section of the Bronx, a group of fifth and sixth graders taste a few dishes each month and offer their criticism to the school’s dietician. Pre-kindergartners stuff themselves with spinach and baked chicken. And now that the food is improving, more students arrive at school early so they can get breakfast.

Harlem’s Children Zone Promise Academy Charter School: Students eat exotic dishes like teriyaki fish, Moroccan chicken and turkey meatballs -- all complemented with vegetables, soup, salad, and fresh bread from Zabar's.

The menu reads like a five-star restaurant, puzzling some students and even state officials, who approve school menus. Tilapia, a tasty white fish, mystified menu police, prompting them to call the school. “A lot of things we serve, they generally don’t know about,” said Andrew Benson, executive chef of Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Promise Academy is part of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a $36.3 million foundation that has enough political clout and money to provide the best for its students. It spends $5.87 per student daily on food, whereas other public schools in the city get $2.24 per student. Benson says it would be tough for other schools to mimic their menus but suggests schools can reduce the amount of canned processed food by adding more fresh produce.

PS 154: This school in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood does not have a big budget for food, but it does have an excellent cook. Students have the option to eat a meal made from scratch or a thawed Department of Education staple meal, like chicken patties or tacos.

“It’s good stuff. I can’t knock it,” said the school’s former principal, Richard Goldstein, referring to the freshly made food. “It really had to do with the personal touch that these two people in the kitchen would give. Everything was freshly chopped as opposed to everything coming out of the cans.”

PS 150: Everyone praises Annie Singh, the Tribeca school’s cook, for her excellent food. “She does a lot of hard work over her food, and it really tastes appealing,” said Chloe Malave, a fourth grader, whose favorite dish is red beans and yellow rice. After eating at the school for five years, Malave said there has not been one dish she didn’t like. Parents agree: “[My son] has told me times when her food is better than mine,” said Deborah S. Petti.

THE OVERALL PICTURE

Unfortunately, the food at these four schools seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In InsideSchools' new poll, more than half the 180 readers who responded believe the food is “so bad that children refuse to eat it” or say it's “pretty bad.” Although this poll is not scientific, it uncovers problems that still plague school lunch despite strong efforts by SchoolFood to bring healthy food into the cafeteria. The food is "OK" according to 35 percent of our respondents. Fewer than 15 percent said it was either "pretty good” or “great.”

The cleanliness, noise and general atmosphere of cafeterias is "nightmarish" for about a fifth of respondents. Almost a third found the atmosphere to be "pretty bad." While 36 percent said the atmosphere was "OK," only 11 percent rated it “pretty good” or "great.” Overall, over half of those surveyed find both the food and cafeteria experience to be worse than “OK.”

Forty-one percent of the 180 respondents were students, 51 percent were parents, 3 percent were administrators, and 6 percent were other. (Because of rounding, the total exceeds 100 percent.)

Nearly a quarter of the respondents say that school lunch is improving - although 26 percent think it's getting worse. Still, a parent at PS 40 in Manhattan writes that the cafeteria staff is wonderful: “My son actually likes their food. I still can’t figure out what they do to the tuna but he loves it.…The aroma of garlic has been known to fill the cafeteria.” A student in Queens reports, “Francis Lewis High School has a surprising[ly] great cafeteria.”

This topic page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on the pages of our partner, Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.

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