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Observations on School food in NYC: Part 2

A table is provided where styrofoam trays can be stacked, and food waste is separated into categories.
A table is provided where styrofoam trays can be stacked, and food waste is separated into categories.
Beth Ellor

What constitutes good nutrition and a healthy diet for the nation’s children is the topic of much current discussion. The recently released movie, “Fed Up” will provide a significant contribution to the dialog. for a link to the thesis of the movie.

As the school food debate heats up, and political factions emerge with support for one course of action or another, let’s take another close look at how lunches are handled in those schools of which I have direct knowledge, mostly in Districts 1 and 2 of Manhattan.

It’s important to break this description down: the first topic, talking about the food itself, and the children’s tendency to eat mostly the items they recognize and enjoy, has been discussed in Part I of the series.

The next topic, moving on from the unavoidable waste of the food itself, is the way administrators deal with the residue. To recycle or not? See the accompanying slide show.

In some schools there’s a serious effort at outreach and education, both on food values, and in recycling efforts. If a school cares about the diet the children learn to embrace, it will also tend to care about environmental factors such as the use of Styrofoam trays, and sorting of garbage.

What a pleasant experience to see schools where children participate in Cookshop programs , and are also enlisted to help with stacking trays, clearing food waste into the correct disposal cans, and helping younger children put milk and milk cartons into two separate receptacles. This job is taken very seriously by the assigned classes, and wearing disposable plastic gloves, they earnestly follow through on their tasks at PS 20 on the Lower East Side. This initiative came from the administration, but could just as easily come from the parents or the students, if they would request it.

Meanwhile in other schools, everything is simply deposited all in one place, even if cans are of different colors and have specific labels. Without monitoring and instruction, the plan will not happen. The trays, half-full milk cartons, candy wrappers, complete meals, unopened yogurts, perfect apples and other fruits – are all dumped together. Entire metal trays from the salad bars, which cannot be saved for the next day due to hygiene and food safety concerns, are dumped wholesale into the trash. So are any leftovers in the kitchens – once they’re unfrozen they can’t be re-heated again. One of the toughest sights is seeing parents who sit with their children during the breakfast program, encouraging their child to eat what is in fact quite an enticing array of choices – cereal with milk; yogurt and fruit; bagels with cream cheese; pancakes with bacon; scrambled egg and sausage; individually wrapped and heated carrot cakes or banana muffins; yet while the child eats, the parent may not save what is left to take home, or eat up some of it themselves. This makes absolutely no sense but the way it has been explained to me is, “If you start that, they will come to rely on it.” And . . .? We would rather throw away oodles of nourishing food than allow a parent to eat or take something home for the little ones? Then there is the question of liability – should a parent take something home and eat it when it has perhaps soured or become moldy, the schools could get sued. Uh-oh. I haven’t seen instances of subterfuge, either – back in the early 90’s when I was in the Bronx Superstart program, we would quietly bag up extra food and set it aside, where parents simply took it without comment. Goodness knows what would have happened if we were found out…

I have no idea what the solution is to this range of concerns and degree of involvement. There is ample food and ample need. Kids eat or they don’t eat, depending on many individual factors. Is there a disconnect for the children between throwing away food and seeing homeless and hungry people as they walk home? How to improve participation and quality, and reduce waste, is clearly the defining challenge. The various personalities and lines of attack will be outlined in the third part of this series. Read on!

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