Healthy and nutritious meals are an integral part of a child’s development and education. In order for children to stay alert and focused in school, they must have a balanced diet that feeds a healthy body and mind. Unfortunately, roughly 40 percent of city public school students are overweight or obese. To address this health concern, the Department of Education partnered with the Department of Health to develop a Wellness Policy and create new nutritional standards and menu items that provide our students with delicious and healthy meals.
In 2004, we brought in Executive Chef Jorge Collazo, who helped to reformulate more than 20 menu items, reducing sodium and fat content while simultaneously enhancing taste and presentation. The new menu items include roasted chicken with curry sauce and whole-grain pasta with meat sauce. In addition, we replaced whole milk with 1-percent low-fat and skim milk or fat free chocolate milk, replaced white bread with whole wheat bread, eliminated trans fats, and started baking French fries instead of frying them. We also offer fresh fruit and salad bars, encouraging students to choose more plant-based foods.
The Department of Education also partners local groups with individual schools to provide more healthy options for students. But the scale of the system, and rising costs that aren’t covered by federal funding, make it difficult to overhaul the system overnight.
The Department of Education serves 860,000 nutritious meals to students every day, including breakfast at no charge and free and reduced-price lunch for low-income families. Even in summer, when school is out, the city provides free summer meals for all students up to 18 years old.
Despite our efforts to provide healthy and nutritious meals to our students, several provisions of the recently signed Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act threaten our progress. One provision increases federal reimbursement by only six cents per meal at a time when costs have risen. We’re also seeing a higher number of students now qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch — roughly 74 percent of our students are now eligible.
We will continue to make improvements to our school meals programs in the coming school year, including adding more salad bars and helping more schools grow their own vegetable gardens, which teach children about the importance of sustainability and the environment. It will not be easy, especially in light of ongoing budget cutbacks. But providing well-balanced meals for our 1.1 million students is an integral component to our education system, and we will continue to make it a top priority.
Kathleen Grimm is deputy chancellor of Operations for the Department of Education.