The first day of school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
In New York City, nearly half of elementary school children are overweight. The city’s Department of Education is in charge of the largest school food service program in the country, serving over 177 million meals per year. But despite the city’s efforts, such as providing free breakfast for students and placing restrictions on snacks sold in school vending machines, childhood obesity continues to pose a major challenge. In recent decades there have been significant improvements in the quality of school food, but the need for more progress is evident -- both for the general physical health of young people and the effects it has on learning.
Studies show that food quality has an impact on children’s learning and mental growth. According to the American Psychological Association, “A hungry child between the age of 6 and 12 is more likely to receive special education services, repeat a grade in school or receive mental health counseling, than a child who is not hungry.”
There have been efforts in New York City to see implementation of universal free school lunch to help ensure every student eats during the day, to improve the healthfulness of the food that is offered in schools, to make sure that students have access to healthy snacks, and to allow students to eat “breakfast after the bell” inside their classrooms, not just the cafeteria before school begins. These initiatives have been implemented to varying degrees.
Still, school meals are not the only contributor to children’s eating habits — many schools are surrounded by fast food restaurants and small corner markets, which children are likely to frequent before or after school hours, and sometimes during lunch breaks. Various solutions have been suggested to decrease the density of fast food outlets near schools, including zoning and conditional licensing. Some establishments selling fast food also receive subsidies from the city, which some believe should be directed at healthy food retailers instead.
In New York City, the availability of healthy food options is often related to income. In low-income neighborhoods such as East Harlem, grocery stores are scarce compared to bodegas and fast food retailers. The same inequality goes for schools, where children coming from food-insecure families rely heavily on the school meals. But, despite being eligible for a reduced-priced or free school meal, the fear of stigma for being poor leads some students to skip meals. This has been part of the argument behind universal free school lunch, a program that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has not agreed to, though a middle-school pilot program is underway.
“The three-tier system stigmatizes students who eat free or reduced-priced meals. The system creates conditions in which some students can look down on others,” said Janet Poppendieck, the author of “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America” and senior faculty fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, at a food policy event at CUNY School for Public Health.
Poppendieck also said that despite the changes that some schools have made to protect the identity of those who receive school lunch assistance, the stigma around those students still persists. Some students wind up skipping what might be their only potential proper meal of their day.
Poppendieck is also part of an advocacy campaign called Lunch4Learning (L4L) that is behind the push to make free school lunch universal. L4L and other advocacy groups recently rallied at City Hall to demand Mayor de Blasio keep his campaign promise of ending the relationship between school lunch and family income. Public Advocate Letitia James has been supportive of the recommendation, as have several City Council members. Three prominent union leaders, including the teachers union president, wrote a joint op-ed on Monday in The Daily News pushing Mayor de Blasio to include universal free lunch in his upcoming budget.
"We live in one of the richest cities in the world, but we still are having trouble convincing some local lawmakers that it is not OK for children to spend the majority of their time in school hungry,” said Pamela Stewart Martinez, Co-President of the Citywide Council on Special Education. “In a city where 40 percent of the homeless population is school age children, why should universal free lunch even be an unfulfilled campaign promise?”
Usually discussed around city budget season, universal free lunch would have an additional cost, but L4L says it would require a little over a dollar per child per school day for the city to be able to provide free lunch for all. There are more than one million public school students in the city. The de Blasio administration has said it is unsure if moving to universal free school lunch would cost the city in related federal funds. According to Poppendieck, “the higher the participation rate, the lower the unit cost of producing each meal. So basically, by moving to this we would free up more of the federal reimbursement for food.”
Advocates say that in other cities where school districts have implemented universal free lunch, there have been positive results and more investment into fresh and local food. “So that’s why I think even for people whose primary concern is the food quality and healthfulness, nutrition, rather than the experience of the kids or the participation rate, it’s still a pathway to better school food,” Poppendieck said.
Nutrition value of school meals has been a concern for a long time. A recent study conducted on Finnish 6-8-year-old elementary school students suggested that there is a positive correlation between a healthy nutritious diet and reading skills. Since a school meal might be a student’s only full meal of the day, advocates and health experts want to make sure that meals provide as much nutritional value as possible.
The New York City Department of Education’s website states its “nutrition standards always meet, and many times exceed, USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals.” These standards allow schools to serve meals headlined by pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks. The “Eat Your Colors” part of the meal is usually a healthy vegetable, like broccoli, but sometimes also french fries or another starch. Salad bar with fresh vegetables is available everyday to students across the city.
“If you want paying kids to buy the food, the feeling has been that you have to offer foods that they are familiar with and recognize, and that’s...your tacos, burritos, burgers and pizzas and what have you,” said Poppendieck. “If you move to universal, you could gradually shift to include more soups and stews, which, among other things, make it possible to use leftovers."
“School food professionals have an opportunity to leverage their collective buying power for a better food system,” said Toni Liquori, founder and executive director of SchoolFood Focus, a Manhattan-based organization aiming to improve the quality of school food by working with school districts, food producers, and advocates, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Through working with school districts and food suppliers, we’ve helped reformulate and create new nutritious products for school purchase — from poultry raised with responsible antibiotic use to a more wholesome bean burrito. All of which are available nationwide for purchase.”
Beyond formal meals, there are often school vending machines for student use, and they regularly offer so-called “copycat products”, which are usually lower fat and lower sodium versions of popular junk food snacks such as Doritos.
A UConn Rudd Center study showed that the similar packaging of these products was confusing to children and parents alike, and that many struggled to differentiate the original product from the healthier one. The study reasons that selling these products contradicts the schools’ nutrition and health education and may fuel the misconceptions many of the participants had about the healthiness of the products.
Of note are a couple other positive developments in the healthfulness of school food: food additives such as artificial colors or flavors are no longer used in city school meals and in fiscal year 2015 DOE spent 6% more of its budget on local products than the year before. Locally sourced and produced food is offered on the menu every Thursday.
There is still much more to do, both in and near schools, though, to improve healthfulness for young people in New York. Some want to see the city take new steps to use legislative tools.
Licensing and Creating Healthy Food Zones
Food insecurity and food access are major problems in many neighborhoods. According to the 2015 Food Metrics Report nearly one in five children in New York City live in food insecure households. Grocery stores are often scarce in the city, especially in lower-income neighborhoods, which makes access to fresh and healthy food challenging. Fast food outlets, however, are abundant in almost every neighborhood.
Ending public subsidies for fast food establishments has been presented as one potential way to improve healthy food access in low-income neighborhoods. Businesses can be eligible to receive financial support such as tax benefits from the city and fast food restaurants are included. According to a food policy guide by CUNY and Corporate Accountability International from 2012, the city “provided support to 13 fast food establishments, including six McDonald’s and two Burger King chains. Most of the supported establishments were located in East and Central Harlem, communities with among the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in New York and the nation.”
According to a plan from The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), Model Healthy Food Zone Ordinance, a study showed that students with fast food restaurants within a half-mile of their school are more likely to be overweight.
Another way to prevent students from eating unhealthy food during or after school hours might lie in the use of zoning. By creating so-called “healthy food zones,” fast food and chain restaurants can be prohibited from establishing new outlets within a certain distance from a school.
The zoning approach is preventative, but in New York City it is nearly impossible to find neighborhoods without existing fast food outlets. Zoning may help limit new unhealthy or less healthy options from moving in, though. This practice is not currently in use.
Conditional licensing can be used to restrict the operation of already existing establishments, and might therefore be a better option than restrictive zoning for urban centers like New York City. “Licensing is more flexible because you can apply it to businesses that already exist,” said Jennifer Pomeranz, Clinical Assistant Professor at College of Global Public Health. “You could use this authority to license restaurants and also stores that are near schools to say ‘you have a license to operate as long as you agree to our conditions,’ for example not selling sugary beverages,” Pomeranz said. This method would allow existing establishments to continue their operations with a healthier agenda, whereas zoning would be used to prohibit these establishments from operating in a certain area.
Arguments against limiting fast food restaurants include fears of possible job losses and other economic damages. Advocates, however, point to the fact that healthier food retailers would have an opportunity to open in their place and hence improve healthy food access in underserved neighborhoods. Some also worry about interference with the free market and individual choice -- there has often been pushback against the “nanny state.”
To help retailers improve healthy food access, the city launched a program called Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) in 2009 to provide “zoning and financial incentives to promote the establishment and retention of neighborhood grocery stores in underserved communities throughout the five boroughs.” For eligible operators, FRESH offers additional development rights, reduction in required parking, and permission for larger stores to operate in light manufacturing districts. The financial incentives include real estate tax reductions, sales tax exemption, and mortgage recording tax deferral. These make it easier for new retailers to open a new grocery store in underserved areas and for existing businesses to stay in operation.
The city has also moved forward with the green carts initiative, providing more options for healthy food in underserved neighborhoods without the major capital and overhead costs of a traditional store or restaurant.
A move to replace fast food outlets with healthier retailers would meet strong resistance. The fast food industry’s lobbying powers have regularly made sure that efforts to limit its operations are defeated. For example, in 2014 the city lost its battle to limit the sizes of sugary beverages that could be sold in certain circumstances -- an effort started by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has backed regulation of sugary beverages around the country. In New York, there was strong pushback from both the public and the restaurant industry.
Changes in food options for students rely on viable alternatives to unhealthy options now being offered, and where the city has the most control is indeed in schools themselves.
On Tuesday, the New York City Council announced $595,000 in funding for 16 new school food pantries across the city. The pantries, which will be placed in high-needs schools in partnership with Food Bank for New York City, are largely aimed at “combating food insecurity,” according to a press release from the Council. They will offer food that can be taken home as well as personal hygiene products like toothpaste and tampons.
“Thousands of students across New York City rely on schools to provide their nutritional needs for the day,” New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement accompanying the school food pantry announcement. “Lacking access to these supplies can leave our children and young adults stressed and unable to focus on their education.”