Limitations in lunchrooms

In a typical week, elementary school menus include chicken tenders, cheeseburgers, and “Pizza Fridays," with sides of cheesy rotini, mozzarella sticks or french fries. A healthy meal can be hard for students to come by in a public school cafeteria, and is especially challenging for school systems to provide.

SchoolFood must adhere to strict guidelines when creating its menus. It must serve at least two protein entrees, one starch and one vegetable item on its hot food line. Aside from nutrition regulations, the program faces budget, staff and equipment constraints.

Currently, each SchoolFood meal costs $2.43. After subtracting the costs of milk and overhead, less than $1 per meal is left. Furthermore, most elementary school kitchens lack enough stove tops or oven space to cook food for the thousand-plus students eating. A kitchen staff at the SchoolFood headquarters in Queens prepares the food, adding preservatives to keep the food from spoiling when it is shipped to schools in all five boroughs.

Wellness wake-up

To help address SchoolFood's problems, a number of wellness organizations are trying to bring fresh vegetables into elementary school cafeterias. Wellness in the Schools is a grassroots organization involved with 21 different schools. The group focuses on cooking from scratch, serving fresh food every day and providing culinary education to cafeteria staff.

“It’s a heat-and-serve culture in the kitchens, and we want to turn it into a cooking culture,” said Kristen Schoonover, the Brooklyn liaison for Wellness in the Schools.

Wellness in the Schools provides salad bars with fresh ingredients three times a week in most of its schools. The organization is also involved in the classrooms, educating students about how they should fill up their lunch trays.

On one morning, Schoonover helped students at P.S. 130 in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn write letters to Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, encouraging her to increase the budget in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act.

Healthy forces combine

New York Coalition for Healthy School Food is another organization seeking to improve the quality of food served in schools. The group is in its second year of a partnership with the Future Leaders Institute Charter School in Harlem and offers plant-based lunch options to students every Tuesday and Thursday. Upper East Side restaurant Candle 79 provided the recipes for the lunches last year, including vegetarian chili, black bean burgers and tofu lasagna. The coalition emphasizes the importance of replacing junk food with vegetables and the health benefits of that change.

“There can be many different choices for students to eat, but it is our belief that all choices should be healthy choices, that schools should not serve unhealthy food that contributes to disease. They should only serve food that supports good health and helps to prevent diseases,” said Amie Hamlin, executive director for the coalition.

Though the approaches of these two organizations are different, their goals are the same: to provide fresh, healthy food to New York City public school students.

There are signs that their efforts are working. In 2004, the New York City Department of Education hired Chef Jorge Collazo to create a more nutritious, wholesome menu. Since then, SchoolFood has replaced white bread with whole wheat, whole milk with skim and 1percent white and chocolate milk, tried to include more locally-grown vegetables on its menus and this year, plans to reduce sodium in its meals and use more fresh or frozen vegetables instead of canned, according to Marge Feinberg, the press secretary for SchoolFood. Menus now include confetti salad with corn and red, green and yellow peppers, lemon-roasted carrots and steamed broccoli with toasted garlic.

Kids may still want to reach for chicken nuggets, but at least they can chomp on carrots, too.

Students eye the chicken tenders and fries on the menu at P.S. 130 in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn.
Watch this audio slideshow to see students at P.S. 130 in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn dive into the salad bar provided by Wellness in the Schools.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are a big deal at the Future Leaders Institute Charter School in Harlem. Hear what the students think of their twice-weekly vegetarian entrees in this audio slideshow.