A Dinner Party a Million Times Over: Feeding NYC Public Schools

By Tove Danovich (NYC).This story begins to answer the question “What’s it like to order food for a big NYC institution?” In this case, NYC Public Schools is the institution, and the answer in a few words: A balancing act. From the expected challenges, such as making ends meet financially and meeting new federal regulations, to the less expected challenges such as catering to students’ fickle tastes to avoid food waste, the logistics of school food is immensely complicated and individualized to each school. Everyone involved has demands: the students, school cooks, the Dept. of Education, food suppliers for the schools, politicians and those enforcing new federal dietary standards. A select group of employees have to make all of these vying demands come together, in some cases just for a school to not dip into the red. Schools are perhaps a prime example of how influential a high level regulation can be on the furthest reaches of food supply management.

“Everything is easy until you have to do it yourself,” Eric Goldstein, CEO of School Support Services for the NYC Department of Education said. “That holds true from the planning to the delivering to the preparation of meals to NYC school children.” If you’ve ever had a difficult time making a menu for a dinner party of 10, imagine putting together six weeks of breakfasts and lunches, five days a week, for 1.1 million students. In New York City, that’s the full time job description of a team of eleven Department of Education employees.

Since Michelle Obama took on school food reform and childhood obesity as part of her Let’s Move! Campaign, cafeteria food has become a hot topic. Yet too few people have tackled the issue of what it actually takes to implement USDA regulations for school food across an entire school district. Since the National School Lunch Program was signed into law in 1946 it’s only gotten more complicated. There are summer lunch programs and commodity programs which help farmers with surplus crops sell them to the national lunch program. Though school food’s number one goal is to supply school-aged children with proper nutrition, it’s an important tool for agriculture as well.

In a place like New York City where schools range from having a brand new cafeteria in the basement to a small, basic kitchen on the fourth floor, it can be especially difficult to design a menu that works for everyone. Not only is the scale of meals immense – Brooklyn Technical High School, for example, currently has 5,414 students—the infrastructure and taste preferences of one school can vary widely from one to another.

“We have kids who like typical Italian flavor profiles, and other neighborhoods have more of a Caribbean-West Indian flavor profile, or could be more Latin, and everywhere in between,” Goldstein said. Because students who don’t like the food often simply throw it away, the challenge is to fit the rules set down by the USDA while making sure kids enjoy the meals too. “Pizza cuts across all categories these days,” Goldstein added with a laugh. Pizza Fridays are always one of the most popular for school lunches.

A study by the school food advocacy group The Lunch Box found that the average student threw out 67 pounds of food every year. In one New York City school, people threw out an average of half a pound of food waste every day. Multiplied by 1.1 million students in addition to teachers, staff, and administration – that’s a lot of expensive food.To get NYC’s students to finish their meals, the DOE is starting with the students and working backwards. The first question the school food team asks when planning the next six weeks’ menus is what the kids will enjoy.

See photos of NYC lunchrooms in years past.

Cafeteria staff preparing lunch in a public school outside of Washington D.C. Photo from USDA.

Yet, even with a popular and healthy menu in place, the logistical challenges are just beginning. The DOE has hundreds of people involved in making sure the process of planning, ordering, delivering, cooking, and cleaning up after meals all goes according to schedule. Other than the federal government that subsidizes free or reduced-price lunches, schools rely on students actually buying food to make a profit (or just to break even). School food works like a large corporation without the uniformity that makes it easy to stock, staff, and generate income.

Luckily, there are ways around it. For some high volume items like pizza or chicken, schools send out bids to manufacturers directly. Some of these producers are household names; Tyson’s leading chicken nugget sales often extend into the classroom. Others are suppliers for the food service industry. Yet within the lunch program there are also smaller distributors who receive general specifications from the schools telling them what the school needs and the price they can pay. These distributors then gather the items on the DOE’s behalf. All this negotiating with suppliers is because the difference of $0.01 per meal multiplied by 850,000 meals and snacks a day isn’t small change to a program with slim margins.

Yet what any good school district wants isn’t just to meet federal standards but exceed them. Often this takes the form of signature food programs – something outside the hot lunch line where it won’t be reimbursed by federal funds. In New York City, it’s salad bars. They currently appear in over 1000 schools with the goal of increasing access and exposure to fruits and vegetables – the most lacking nutrients for students from food insecure households. “We want the kids to have fresh produce and go back home and say, ‘We had carrots – why can’t we have carrots at home?’” Goldstein said.

These salad bars also allow a garden-to-cafeteria integration for school garden programs such as those run by programs like Edible School yard or Grow to Learn NYC. Though less about nutrition than about agricultural education, the gardens help students appreciate food and where it comes from. As an urban area, NYC schools have been lucky to have organizations like Farm to School, Wellness in the Schools, School Food FOCUS, and other nonprofits foster relationships with nutrition educators, chefs, and farmers to promote not just healthy eating but a healthy food education as well.

While all schools are required to serve meals for their students, it’s up to students and parents to take advantage of school lunch programs. Even a few hundred students with a bagged lunch can be the difference between one school having a functioning lunch program or a program with too little revenue. External groups that bring gardening into the schools have made tremendous strides in getting kids to eat their veggies. Most children are willing to try new things if they had a hand in growing or preparing it.

But as Goldstein says, “There’s nothing cheap in NYC.” Overall, the school district would rather make small changes and see the kids trying more fruits and vegetables than become nutritional heroes and lose their entire revenue base. Though federal nutrition standards are trying to make children healthier, it’s often without regard to what they’ll actually eat. In New York City, school food is trying to see its students as customers, not just mouths to feed.

Even with the right attitude and perspective, it’s not easy to manage the logistics of NYC’s public school food system—which is even more overwhelming when you realize it’s just one microcosm of a food system within the greater NYC, or even national, food system. Managing school food has always been difficult, but is only getting more attention lately with the recent regulations being debated in congress.

Political and lobbyist arguments over details as seemingly ridiculous as whether tomato sauce on a frozen pizza counts as a serving of vegetables or not, indicates more than the politicization of school food over the past few years, but how these debates and decisions can have reverberating consequences in how a person like Goldstein makes the finances of his supply chain make sense. How many more orders can you cut out if you can get an extra serving of federally demanded vegetables from just one supplier, like Schwann, who supplies frozen pizzas? How many children will be better or worse off? More money for a school that really needs it, or consistently healthy food for children? Perhaps the question people should be begging is: How can we think outside the box so that money and children’s health aren’t pitted against each other?

Posted in New York