Forget About Soda, Real NYC Food Reform Starts in School

Mayor Bloomberg’s recent proposal for a ban on super-sized sugary sodas has been met with wisecracks by the chattering class on both the right and left.  Rare is an idea that unites Fox News, Comedy Central, and MSNBC in its derision.

Yet, the problem of childhood and adult obesity, along with an alarming rise in related health conditions, is not a joke.  In poorer sections of New York City, such as the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, obesity rates among the adult population top 20% and are rising.

The Mayor’s call for a ban on the sale of sugary sodas sold in quantities of more than 16 ounces at delis, restaurants, movie theaters, sports stadiums and other such venues, is well intentioned. However, even if passed, it would do little to remedy the growing problem, particularly of childhood obesity among New York’s economically struggling families.

Families in New York City living near or below the poverty level rarely have the opportunity to buy 32-ounce soft drinks at movies, ballgames, or even fast-food restaurants.  Expensive family outings are beyond their means. On the rare occasions when they do splurge, a super-sized drink is likely to be passed around and shared like popcorn, not consumed by one very thirsty individual.

The danger of exposure to empty calories and overly processed foods isn’t at stadiums and cinemas, it’s in the schools.  68% of New York City public school children qualify for free school lunch.  The percentage in high-poverty neighborhoods is much higher.

Many high-poverty schools offer free breakfast as well as lunch.  Every school day, five days a week, two thirds of each child’s daily meals are served in the school cafeteria. These are not wholesome healthy meals cooked onsite, but processed foods delivered to be heated and served.  Recently, there was an uproar over the “pink slime” meat-by-product served to children, but less talked about is the high fat/high carb content of most offerings.  In neighborhoods where childhood asthma is endemic and fatalities are not unknown, an often served “breakfast sandwich,” includes azodicarbonamide, a respiratory sensitizer, banned as a food additive in the UK. While foods with transfats are now forbidden in New York City restaurants, they are daily fare in our schools.

The effects of this “diet” will be seen long-term in increased obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes.  Short term, teachers and children themselves identify the difference in students’ ability to concentrate or even stay awake after lunch.  While these observations are anecdotal, they are backed up by empirical evidence that better food leads to better educational outcome.

Unlike a soda ban, changing school foods is not a quick fix.  Currently, New York City public schools receive all their food through School Food Services, a division of the New York City Department of Education, which buys in bulk from specified vendors.  Principals are able to allocate additional funding from their budgets to supplement the regular fare with healthier offerings such as salad bars, but have little control over the menu.   In contrast to charter schools, individual public schools are not able to receive direct federal and state reimbursements to buy food.  While Mayor Bloomberg has supported educational policies to make principals more effective school managers, principals still have almost no say in the staffing of their cafeterias, menu planning or purchasing of food. In fact, schools cannot even use their kitchens (including the ones actually equipped to cook food) to offer cooking or nutrition classes to parents after the school day unless a hefty fee is paid to School Food Services to staff the kitchen with a School Foods employee at all times while the kitchen is open.

Community Health Academy of the Heights, (CHAH), a New York City public school in Washington Heights and its founding partner, The Community League of the Heights are trying to change this system.  The school will be moving to a new state-of-the-art building in February 2013.  The building features a full-service cafeteria with a “cooking” kitchen.  Parents and students have organized to ask for better food options.  CHAH is proposing a Smart Food/Healthy Community program.  The objective is not only to provide children with higher quality food, but to create lifelong healthy eating habits and increase nutritional awareness throughout the community.  The program’s goals encompass (1) students understanding where their food comes from and how it arrives at the table, (2) getting healthier food to students, including less processed, locally sourced, fresher food prepared onsite in the school’s kitchen, and (3) innovative usage of the kitchen for educational purposes, including for adult and youth cooking and nutritional programs after school hours as part of CHAH’s vision for community programming.  The goals sound simple; achieving them through the current system is not.

Certainly, additional funds will be needed.  These could be raised through private funding and grants as they are at charters, but the real issue is how far will CHAH be allowed to go by the DOE and School Food Services?

If the Mayor truly wants to change the unhealthy eating habits of New Yorkers, supporting school food reform and efforts like this one would be a great start.