Gotham Gazette Sun, 29 Mar 2020 19:41:33 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) We Can't Let Trump Reverse Years of Improved School Food Policy mayor meatless mondays

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

My nephew is 10-years-old, is obese, and has type-2 diabetes. He wasn't raised to eat healthy, and my sister and brother-in-law don't always do the best to encourage good eating habits. One place they have no control over my nephew's diet is at school.

He's in 5th grade in a public school in northern Manhattan. He often tells me what he has for breakfast and lunch at his school, and laughs when he sees my reactions to what he describes. Bagel sticks with cream cheese and jelly, cinnamon twists, juice, and chocolate milk are just a few of the items he brags about that taste good.

New York City's public schools have come a long way in improving the quality of school food over the years. The city has worked hard to make school meals healthier than other cities across the country, and the Obama Administration was on the same page when it passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which aimed to serve more nutritious and fiber-dense whole grains and less flavored milks, which contain harmful added sugars.

But then came President Trump, and in December 2018 his administration weakened the law by reversing limits on sodium, allowing flavored milks and reducing whole grain foods in school food. Earlier this month a coalition of state attorneys general and two food policy advocacy groups sued the Trump Administration for violating the Administrative Procedure Act and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act by authorizing the reversal last December and bypassing legal requirements.

As a graduate student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, I’m passionate about improving public health (like my 10-year-old nephew's) through improved food and public health policies. I wrote a food policy brief last fall for one of my classes, arguing that New York City public schools should eliminate flavored milk during breakfast and lunch and instead offer plain milk as the default. It also proposed making 100% fruit juice available during breakfast and only upon request by the student.

Using evidence-based research, I explained that both flavored milk and 100% fruit juice are large contributors to diet-related chronic diseases like obesity and type-2 diabetes, which affect not only many adult New Yorkers, but children as well.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, one in five city kindergarten students is obese. Studies show that obese children are at increased risk of becoming obese adults, and statistics show that obesity is more prevalent among black and Hispanic people compared to those of other races.

There is already strong scientific evidence linking poor quality school food, like flavored milks, to diet-related chronic diseases. However, many people (even doctors and nutritionists) are misled that 100% fruit juice is healthy. The sugars in these juices, even though all natural, are just as bad as added sugars in soda. Sugars in whole fruit are filled with fiber, so it's filling and hard to eat a lot of. Sugar in whole fruit is delivered slowly to the liver, which more easily metabolizes the sugar without being overloaded.

Fruit juice, without the fiber, sends a large amount of sugar quickly to the liver, just like when you consume a soda. Most of the sugar in fruit juice is fructose, and the liver can only metabolize it in small amounts. When the liver is overloaded with fructose, some if it turns into fat, and some of it stays in the liver, causing non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and eventually type-2 diabetes. Advocates like Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor emeritus of Pediatrics, Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), have been warning America about this metabolic epidemic for years.

School districts across the country have been trying for years to improve the quality of school food to make it healthier for children. The trend started in 2006 in Berkeley, California. There, under the direction of Chef Ann Cooper, then Director of Nutrition Services, the city banned chocolate milk from their school district. Chef Cooper moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2009, and did the same for that school district. In 2010 Washington, D.C. and Fairfax County, VA both eliminated chocolate milk from their public schools. In 2011 Los Angeles removed all flavored milks, becoming the largest school district in the country to do so (even though in 2016 they reversed the policy as a result of pressure from the dairy industry). In 2013 Montgomery County, Maryland banned strawberry milk from its schools. In 2014 Connecticut considered removing chocolate milk from all schools in the entire state, but ultimately the governor didn’t sign the bill. Finally, in 2017, San Francisco removed chocolate milk from all of its schools.

At the time I was writing my food policy brief for my NYU graduate class, the Trump Administration announced that it was rolling back school nutrition standards, and I mentioned it in the brief. The Trump Administration thinks it can reverse policies that have taken years to fight for and implement without following legally required procedures. I applaud New York Attorney General Letitia James for leading this coalition of attorneys general who brought on this lawsuit.

New York City has worked hard to improve the quality of its school food and usually is a trendsetter for the rest of the United States when it comes to public health (see: smoking ban, menu labeling). The city needs to continue striving for excellence in public health policy and to help make New York City children healthier. Stopping irrational policy reversal decisions with lawsuits may be the only way to fight the Trump Administration, which doesn’t seem to care about the childhood obesity and type-2 diabetes epidemics currently facing New York City and the rest of the United States.

I do care. I care about my nephew's health and future, and I intend to contribute to positive change in public health not only in New York but the rest of the country. Won’t you join me?

David Lundquist is an Executive MPA student at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and works for NYU Langone Health.

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We Can't Let Trump Reverse Years of Improved School Food Policy Thu, 25 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Giving Our Children Tools to Eat and Live Healthily school garden 2 002

(photo: 123rf rawpixel)

It’s 10 a.m. in Ms. Montalvo-Teller’s second grade science lab at P.S. 75. A group of students are happily scarfing down kale, arugula, and bok choy leaves they grew themselves. While they enjoy their snack, Ms. Montalvo-Teller engages them in a science lesson about what parts of the plant we eat. And, Ms. Montalvo-Teller says, many will then go home and pester their parents to buy more of the tasty greens for dinner.

These kids are getting great food and nutrition education that will help them develop as healthy eaters and advocates for good food. Yet there is no guarantee that students in the school down the street, or in other schools across the city, are getting similar opportunities. In fact, according to a recent study, almost half of our city’s schools lack access to external food and nutrition education programs.

We face incredible odds in helping our children eat well. Show us a parent who hasn’t had to contend with the colorful sugar-cereal aisle, the athlete’s face on the soda can, or the fast food toy promotion. And parents who struggle to put any food at all on the table face even more challenges.

That’s where school-based food and nutrition education comes in. The evidence shows, and parents know, that when children are excited and empowered to eat well, they will.

Kindergarteners visiting the local farmers market. Fifth-graders cooking and sharing a meal together. High school seniors learning to combat how structural racism makes healthful foods inaccessible in some communities. In all its forms, food and nutrition education engages students in navigating our challenging food supply. And, with students eating up to three meals and a snack during the school day, they have the chance to put new skills into practice within hours of learning them.

With school-based food and nutrition education, we can improve our children’s health, our communities’ health, and even the health of our planet. Food and nutrition education is a key to combating childhood obesity. In New York City, one in five kindergarten students is obese and the ratio is even higher for black and Latino children.

Eating a nutritious diet improves students’ physical, mental, and emotional health. They learn better today and avoid a host of chronic diseases down the line. Many of our city’s communities lack access to healthy and affordable food. Students who have learned to look critically at the types of foods available in their neighborhoods go on to launch campaigns for better choices in their local bodegas.

And of course, we can’t ignore climate change. Children who learn about the impact of food and agriculture on the environment grow up to be conscious consumers and advocates for a more sustainable food system.

All New York City students deserve healthy, equitable, sustainable, and culturally-responsive food access and education. Yet the city’s Department of Education (DOE) does not provide any data on which students are getting food and nutrition education, how much they are getting, or who is delivering it. Anecdotally, we know there are more teachers like Ms. Montalvo-Teller in schools across the city. And according to a Tisch Food Center report, we also know that there are dozens of organizations that provide food and nutrition education to just over half the city’s schools. Yet the picture is far from complete.

That is why we are behind a bill in the City Council, Intro. 1283-2018, that would require the DOE to report on school-based food and nutrition education. DOE needs to shine a light on the gaps in food and nutrition education so that parents, students, educators, advocates, and policy-makers can craft equitable policies that direct resources to the schools and students that need them most. The City Council can’t legislate the implementation of food and nutrition education, but it can require reporting and transparency, which will help highlight and expand what is already happening.

We wouldn’t give a child a book and expect them to understand it without learning to read and analyze the words. Faced with today’s food supply, children likewise need and deserve education that empowers them to prepare, enjoy, and ask for good food. As the children in Ms. Montalvo-Teller’s class will tell you, growing your own salad is a fun way to eat your greens. Let’s make sure food and nutrition education like this is on every student’s academic menu. Passing the food and nutrition education reporting bill is just the first course.

City Council Member Mark Treyger represents parts of Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s education committee; Gale Brewer is Manhattan Borough President; and Dr. Pamela Koch is Executive Director of Columbia University’s Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy. On Twitter @MarkTreyger718 & @galeabrewer & @pam_koch & @tischfoodcenter.

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Giving Our Children Tools to Eat and Live Healthily Mon, 01 Apr 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Advancing an Inclusive Approach to School Meals school food rally

School food inclusivity rally (@safest)

We as faith leaders are most privileged to cooperate on a project that will benefit our respective communities. For far too long, students who follow religious dietary guidelines have found their public school cafeteria lacks sufficient accommodation in the food offered. Typically students who require a kosher or halal meal have very limited options in school lunch offerings, often choosing to eat nothing. At this time in history, with persistent and growing incidents of discrimination based on religious and racial animus, New York City needs to embrace every possible opportunity to show compassion, inclusivity, and accommodation for all students – and to ensure no child needs to leave the school cafeteria hungry.

It is impossible to know for sure how many students follow religious dietary restrictions. However, with roughly 38 percent of public school students identifying as Muslim or Jewish, it is possible that thousands of students do not participate in current Department of Education School Food programs because of their religious customs. And with 72 percent of the city’s public school students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches – a potential indicator of food insecurity – it is clear that the number of students who could benefit from a halal or kosher meal in school is significant.

Many of us in the Muslim and Jewish faith communities, joined by community groups, have been advocating for years for the Department of Education to offer halal and kosher food options in schools. We know accommodating this request is not easy, given the complexities of a food distribution network that serves meals to approximately 600,000 students each day, second only to the U.S. Military.

Now, after years of advocacy, we are celebrating a key milestone: this year, $1 million has been allocated in the city budget to pilot halal and kosher school lunches in four schools. Thanks to the leadership of City Council Members Chaim Deutsch and Rafael Espinal and Speaker Corey Johnson, this historic funding will provide a solid foundation to pilot halal and kosher food options in city schools.

But funding the pilot is just the beginning. Our campaign is now facing a critical moment to ensure that the city designs and executes a halal and kosher pilot program responsibly, with full inclusion of parents and school communities who will benefit from halal and kosher school lunches.

Comptroller Scott Stringer has already laid forth a blueprint, detailing several options for how such a pilot could be structured. Now that funding for a halal and kosher lunch pilot has been secured, we believe these recommendations merit real consideration by the Department of Education as it plans how to implement the pilot program.

A central element of the Comptroller’s blueprint for piloting halal and kosher school lunches includes the establishment of an advisory committee. This group would include leaders from faith communities, community advocates, school food content experts, food service workers, parents, teachers, and students. The advisory committee could advise and support DOE when selecting schools for inclusion in the pilot, evaluating kitchen space retrofitting needs, developing training programs for food service workers in schools, and coordinating opportunities for community engagement to both raise awareness of the new food offerings and to build trust among parents that halal and kosher food offered in school cafeterias is a legitimate option that meets religious dietary guidelines. An informed advisory body is crucial for successfully serving halal and kosher lunches to students.

Our communities have already been working, informally, in this capacity. Over the past several months, over 50 advocates and leaders from Muslim and Jewish communities have convened in Comptroller Stringer’s office to weigh the complexities and challenges for this campaign and to consider how best to guide and influence this conversation. Now it is time to formalize this role, and become true partners in advancing this important work.

Offering halal and kosher school lunches will benefit all school children by fostering diversity and inclusivity, and ensuring that all children have every opportunity to learn and excel in school. As halal and kosher school lunches are about to become a reality, it is vital that community voices that have been successfully advocating for this cause for years, be recruited to help to make it a reality. All parties want this pilot to be a thoughtful and efficient program, one that will both inform future decision-making on this topic, and positively impact the lives of children who will benefit from a much needed mid-day meal. We are most grateful to Comptroller Stringer and his staff for bringing our faith communities together to demonstrate that unity and diversity can work together. Now it is time to move the work further ahead.

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik is Executive Vice President, New York Board of Rabbis. Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid is Chairman, the Association of African American Imams.

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Advancing an Inclusive Approach to School Meals Tue, 25 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Push for Healthy Student Eating Extends Beyond School Meals students teacher brooklyn school yard

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.”

by Milka Nissinen, Gotham Gazette

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Push for Healthy Student Eating Extends Beyond School Meals Tue, 29 Nov 2016 05:00:00 +0000