School Food Policy Perspective

 

On January 16, Mayor Eric Adams released his Preliminary Budget for FY25. We are encouraged to hear that cuts aren’t as dire as were proposed in his November budget. 

However, if the mayor’s proposed budget cuts to school food remain, it will directly impact school meals and undercut our efforts to improve school nutrition with our new Chefs in the Schools initiative–a partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy and the Department of Education’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS).

Just over one year ago we celebrated the formation of the inaugural NYC Chef Council. That council developed 100 scratch-cooked, plant-forward, and culturally inclusive recipes for NYC public school children. In June, we celebrated the launch of the first-ever Food Education Roadmap at PS 75 in Manhattan, to support increased participation in such meals. And, in October, we gathered together at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem with more than 100 Wellness in the Schools Chefs and NYC Cook Ambassadors, in their chef coats, to launch Chefs in the Schools, our training program to support NYC school cooks in the preparation of these delicious and nutritious meals.

Since then, children all over NYC have seen an increase in scratch-cooked, plant-based, and culturally inclusive recipes such as the Kidney Bean Rajma, Pineapple Rice Medley, Jollof Cauliflower, Kachumber Salad, and so many more prepared by NYC school cooks. Simultaneously, NYC school cooks are being taught culinary skills and learning efficiencies to prepare scratch-cooked meals. 

Until now. This menu which was developed through thoughtful partnership, with input from children and parents from all over NYC, is being replaced with processed heat-and-serve menu items, derailing the momentum that has been building for more than two years. These cuts are confusing for children and directly impact their health. The loss of positive momentum will be felt in the classroom, on the playground, in the gym, and in all aspects of children’s lives, as the impact of a healthy meal can go a very long way. And, unfortunately, the converse is all too true, as we witness high rates of diet-related illnesses, impacting even the youngest New Yorkers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 39% of our public school children in grades K through 8 are overweight or obese.

In the 2023-24 school year student participation in school meals has increased, higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Increased student participation will now only hurt the Office of Food and Nutrition Services as they will not only not be reimbursed for those meals, but will now have to make cuts to the menu that compromise the integrity of our innovative, new program and decrease the frequency of nutritious, scratch-cooked meals on children’s plates. 

The budget cuts are hitting school children where it matters most and we are deeply concerned. Wellness in the Schools is already leveraging private dollars to continue to develop and test new recipes, as we will not lose momentum. Private dollars, however, are limited and our city, our public school children, need to be able to rely on public funding to support healthy school meals that can lead to improved learning outcomes and a lifetime of healthy eating habits.