In one attempt to improve students’ lunch options, the New York City Department of Education began offering schools all-you-can-eat salad bars. PS 151 in Bushwick ordered its salad bar last year, but did not receive it until last month.
And even though the salad bar is now at the school, John Espineli, the school’s SchoolFood manager, said it will not be installed until at least next year because there is no space for it in the cafeteria. SchoolFood is the arm of the Department of Education that regulates the nutrition standards in New York school cafeterias. On top of the struggles receiving and installing the actual salad bar at PS 151, Espineli said he is not sure what the plan is for filling it.
The Obama administration has been working to make school lunches healthier since implementing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which required public schools to follow new nutritional guidelines to receive extra federal lunch aid. In New York City, the Department of Education has been making changes to lunch menus and guidelines since 2004. But the changes have not been implemented equally across the city, interviews and reviews of schools’ lunch menus show — children who live in poorer areas aren’t seeing those healthier lunch options as quickly or as fully as their counterparts in wealthier neighborhoods.
The difference in school budgets and in the number of parents who either donate money or volunteer their time often make the difference in what options are available at a school, said Beatriz Beckford, director of the Brooklyn Food Coalition, which operates Brooklyn School Food Network to work with the community in bringing healthier food to school cafeterias.
“You can go to a school – PS 321 [in Park Slope] is a perfect example – and there you have a tremendous amount of parent participation. PTAs have large budgets, so when they want to build a garden they can make it happen quickly because the PTA can cover the expenses,” Beckford said. “The biggest barrier is economic in places like Bushwick and East New York – you are not going to see the PTA raising $50,000 for a project.”
At PS 151, the Lyndon B. Johnson School, in Bushwick, 99.3 percent of enrolled students in the 2010 to 2011 school year qualified for free or reduced lunches through the state, compared with only 11.5 percent at PS 321, the William Penn school in Park Slope. Free and reduced lunches are offered when a family’s income falls below the poverty line. According to a 2013 report by the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, child poverty in Bushwick is between 40.1 percent and 55.3 percent, while Park Slope has a child poverty level of 10 to 20 percent.
With parents who can afford to chip in more money and time at the schools, children in more affluent neighborhoods have opportunities to grow fresh vegetables in a school garden, parent volunteers stationed in the cafeteria at lunchtime to promote healthy choices, and can chose from alternative lunch menus and have access to a salad bar, Beckford said.
Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said salad bars are now located in more than 1,000 of the city’s 1,750 schools. There were 660 salad bars spread among schools in 2010-2011, according to the DOE’s wellness report – meaning that 340 new salad bars have been added since then. The remaining 700-plus schools will have salad bars by 2015, two years from now.
Espineli said PS 151 students are excited for the salad bar to be installed, but he and Beckford agree that actually serving salad will be the next hurdle.
“It is a layered battle,” Beckford agreed. “You have to get the salad bar, then you have to get the salad in it, then you have to make sure SchoolFood is going to serve it. They are great and we have seen an increased number of them, but they present more problems for schools in neighborhoods like Bushwick, East New York, and Bed-Stuy.”
Organizations like Beckford’s Brooklyn Food Coalition as well as Healthy Schools Brooklyn, which is run through the Brooklyn District Public Health Office, have worked with parents and schools in low-income neighborhoods around Brooklyn to address changes they would like to see in their children’s diets at school. However, this year the SchoolFood menu requirements changed and menu options selected by a school’s principal are no longer flexible. Meaning, if students are always throwing away their green beans, the vegetable can no longer be substituted for a different one, such as cauliflower.
School principals are given three lunch menus to chose from for their school: regular, alternative or vegetarian. The alternative and vegetarian have healthier options for the students to choose from. PS 321 in Park Slope has the alternative menu.
“All the options meet federal and city nutritional standards,” Feinberg from the Department of Education said.
PS 151 has the regular lunch menu offered through SchoolFood, which does offer an afternoon snack of a fruit or a vegetable and has water fountains in the cafeteria, but the menu still offers chocolate milk, pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and has the option every day for students to select a PB&J or cheese sandwich instead of one of the other main dishes.
“In one week you could have chicken nuggets, fish sticks, pasta, cheeseburgers, and pizza – that is five days of highly processed food,” Beckford said. “While the burger is on a whole grain bun and there is a vegetable on the pizza, and that is great, we are not seeing enough changes.”
Latoya Robinson, whose children attend second and third grade at PS 151, said she thinks there is not enough variety in her daughters’ lunches.
“It is always the same thing over and over again – lasagna, hot dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets – this is every week – nothing changes.” she said. “It is because this is free lunch. You go to other schools and it is different textures, tastes, different foods.”
With the parents and community members fighting to make school food healthier for the children of Brooklyn, young children often have a different idea about what is best for them.
Jadalynn Collado, 6, said her favorite food at PS 151 is the pizza, but that she does eat her vegetables.
“She’s really not picky about what she eats,” her mother Jenny Ulloa, 26, said.
“Peas are my favorite,” Jadalynn chimed in excitedly.
Compared to Ulloa’s own experience at PS 151 in 1992, she said the current lunches are great.
“Once in awhile for them to give the kids pizza is ok – they don’t always do it,” she said. “Compared to how school lunch was when I used to come to school here – the amount of food they give out is better and we used to get pizza or hamburgers and fries everyday for lunch.”