How Improved New York City School Food Could Mean Better Food Around the Country
March 08, 2011 | By
Reposted with permission.
Lunch Tray readers may have noticed that I’ve taken a little break over the last two weeks from reporting much on school food and attempts to reform it. Sometimes that weighty, controversial topic just wears me out a bit and I need to take a breather, and I suspect you might feel the same way.
But this New York Times story, which I first learned about from Obama Foodorama‘s Twitter feed, is a nice way to ease back in. Written by the Times’ City Critic (aka Ariel Kaminer), it shares some good news about the current state of New York City school food, which began to undergo reform six or seven years ago.
Featured in particular is one Brooklyn school, P.S. 56, in Cobble Hill. P.S. 56 has a large vegetable garden and on the day Kaminer visited, the lunch room was serving Latin Rice Bowls (chicken tenders, Spanish rice, sweet plantains and a red pepper sauce) along with whole wheat bread. The tenders were baked, not fried, and, according to the article, “almost every kid grabbed a piece of fresh fruit, and many stopped by the salad bar on their way to their seats.”
One critically important aspect of this story is the influence large school districts can have on food manufacturers to come up with healthier products. By producing over 800,000 meals a day, New York City has the market power to demand that companies offer products that are lower in sodium, trans-fat-free and/or free of artificial ingredients. And once those products are available, the story notes, manufacturers have every incentive to also market them to smaller districts around the country.
That beneficial use of market power is precisely what I’ve been wanting to see more of here in Houston, which is the country’s seventh largest school district. For example, last year I asked our Food Services department whether we could muscle our dairy suppliers into lowering the sugar content in (and removing artificial flavors and colors from) our flavored milk. This suggestion was rejected on the grounds that the profit margin on milk sold to schools is so small that the suppliers have no incentive to make such changes. Outside experts have since told me that the explanation I was given is highly suspect, and more recently our Food Services director has indicated that just such a plan to improve the milk is in the works.
Similarly, our district’s recent “Food Show” was a challenge to manufacturers to come up with products meeting the district’s new nutritional specifications. Unfortunately, though, as I noted in my review of that show, the foods I sampled were still distressingly processed and likely to contain objectionable ingredients (like high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and artificial flavors and colors) since HISD (as far as I know) has never asked manufacturers to omit such ingredients.
The Times story concludes by noting anecdotal evidence that kids eating well in school bring their improved eating habits home, in turn influencing their families.
All of this raises the possibility that those cafeteria ladies, with their hairnets and their soup ladles, may be doing more to change the way America eats than all the independent documentaries and Michael Pollan books and Whole Foods markets combined. It’s an astonishing fact considering they operate on a food budget of $1 per meal.
Amen to that.
You can see a video related to the Times story here.