School lunch in New York City: setting trends in feeding children

Lonnie Pidel

New York City! The Big Apple! A city of superlatives: high finance, high buildings, high fashion, and the nation’s largest school food services program-bigger than Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, and San Diego combined.

How big is big?

* Last year, New York schools served more than 99 million lunches and nearly 22 million breakfasts through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.

* They received more than $137.5 million in federal cash subsidies and $15.4 million in federally donated food.

* Many of the city’s 1,200 schools serve more than 2,000 meals a day, most of them-approximately 90 percent-to needy children who get them free or at a reduced price.

But numbers tell only a small part of the story. A visit to New York City schools at lunchtime is a chance to see one of the country’s most dynamic and innovative school food service programs in action.

Winning customers from the competition

At I.S. (intermediate school) 383 in Brooklyn, cafeteria manager Betty Jean Dunn moves around the kitchen checking meals and giving directions while pans of meatballs and pots of collard greens simmer on the big gas stoves.

“We have a lot of competition in this area,” she says, taking a break from her cooking chores.

“There’s a big Burger King down the street and pizza places all over. We try hard to provide our kids a variety of foods they like-pizza, meatball subs, Bushwick burgers.” Hamburgers, at I.S. 383, are named after the section of town where the school is located.

Specialty items and ethnic foods are one reason why school lunch participation increased by approximately 5,000 meals a day between 1985 and 1986. Last year, New York school food services ordered 6 million portions offrench bread pizzas, 9 million pre-cooked fish portions, 7 million hamburgers, and more than 5 million Jamaican Turnovers.

“We originally ordered the turnover, a spiced beef patty in a pastry shell, for a specific ethnic community,” procurement director Bruce Hoffman explains, “but it’s found wider acceptance than we anticipated.”

New York schools are trend setters

Given New York’s history in such matters, it may not be too long before you’ll find Jamaican Turnovers at your local fast food restaurant. Many of the innovations developed in New York have had a wider impact on both vendors and customers in the industry.

“A number of years ago, we decided that, as much as possible, we would eliminate nonessential additives from the meals we serve,” says Beverly Greenburg, director of food technology.

“For example, cold cereal sold in the supermarket has BHA, a preservative, in the packaging for longer shelf life. We worked with Kelloggs on their self-service packages of cereal we use, to take the BHA out for us. We’ve found that when the producers see we mean business, they adjust.”

New York school food services sets its own standards for ingredients and additives in the food it purchases.

“We’ve found that many times we’re way ahead of the industry,” Greenburg notes. “For example, we pioneered canned fruit in natural juice or light syrup as opposed to heavy syrup.

“We developed a fruit cocktail, actually a fruit mix, without the cherries. We wanted to avoid the red dye problem. A few years ago, we eliminated palm and coconut oil because they are high in saturated fat. Industry is just catching up with us on that one.” Helping kids during and after school

Matching innovations in food standards are efforts to meet children’s needs through extra services.

P.S. 31 on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx is an older building with high peaked roofs. It’s listed as an historic landmark. Kids, tired after a long day of school, books and knapsacks in hand, are getting ready to head home for the day. Some of them will stay at school, however.

As a cafeteria worker sets out napkins and containers of juice on a long white table, the aroma of freshly baked corn muffins drifts out from the kitchen.

“This is a special school for bright students,” says Irene Kirnan, food service manager, who is barely audible over the scuffle of children lining up for the bus. “Children have to take a special test to qualify to come here. They come from all over the city. Many of them take part in the Latch Key program.”

Latch Key is a relatively new addition to the services New York City schools have for children. Offering a variety of activities-ranging from arts and crafts to supervised homework sessions-Latch Key is a response to the growing number of children who have no one at home to care for them at the end of the school day.

“Latch Key is designed to help those kids in single parent households or households where both parents are working,” Beth MacDonald, Latch Key program supervisor, explains. “We try to be flexible with our program to meet the needs of our students.”

Snacks, and in some instances suppers, are provided to children through USDA’s Child Care Food Program.

“We originally piloted the Latch Key snack program 3 years ago in one school district in each borough. Based on our success, we went into the supper program. At this point, we’re serving approximately 100,000 snacks a month at 89 locations and approximately 35,000 suppers at 25 locations. Now, we’re exploring a way to provide supper for homeless children,” says MacDonald.

Latch Key is targeted to the city’s neediest children. “Districts that participate are poverty level,” says MacDonald. “We won’t go into a district if

the income bracket is high.” Extra care given to special needs

Special needs children also present a unique challenge for school food services.

“About 5 or 6 years ago, we got an influx of special education students with a wide range of special needs and problems. In addition to behavioral and physical problems, some also had chewing problems,” says Diane Jones, supervisor of special education.

“We found we often needed to modify the texture of the food to meet specific needs, so the first thing we did was equip kitchens with food processors.”

Menu changes and food substitutions have also been needed. “For example,” says Jones, “because we have students with lactose intolerance, we needed to find another source of calcium through food items other than milk.

“Perhaps our most important concern, though, is the quality of life for these children. To the extent possible, we try to teach them through the foods we serve. We feel that the special needs child is entitled to an enjoyable meal just the same as any other child.” Concern for students central to program

Concern for children’s needs and likes is central to New York City’s school food service program and a big reason for its popularity. Schools learn about student preferences in a variety of ways, including a high school elective course, called Marketing Inc., which involves students in school food service and gives them valuable experience at the same time.

According to Mary Ellen McGarry, special projects coordinator, “Marketing Inc. allows students to learn important marketing skills in the classroom that can be used directly in their own cafeterias.

“Each student gets hands-on experience in areas such as menu planning, inventory, pricing, advertising, and sales. We’ve developed an entire curriculum package, including texts and workbooks, as well as Marketing Inc. posters and brochures to recruit the students.

“Any student who successfully completes the course and graduates from high school is offered a job with us. Approximately 15 of our students currently work for school food services and will be transferred into the field as school lunch helpers,” McGarry says.

“The course has been a tremendous success. Last year it was piloted in 22 high schools. This year we’re adding about 10 new schools to that list.”

A recent New York Times editorial cited Marketing Inc. in a long list of the Office of School Food and Nutrition Services achievements. School food services administrator Kevin Gill received high praise in the editorial, which called Marketing I”contribution to students’ health, education, and welfare.”

New York City may be known as a tough place to make it, but the city’s school food service department is working hard to make a difference.

For more information, contact;

Mary Ellen McGarry

Special Projects Coordinator

Office of School Food and

Nutrition Services

44-36 Vernon Boulevard

Long Island City, New York 11101

Telephone: (718) 729-6100

COPYRIGHT 1988 U.S. Government Printing Office

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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