As a former food stamp recipient and a mom who uses great savvy to feed my three kids, I was encouraged and empowered at this week’s Hunger Crisis Forum to hear Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank for New York City say: “No one should feel shame just because they don’t have enough money [to adequately feed their family].” The Hunger Crisis Forum took place the same week that the annual Free Summer Meals Program [PDF] kicks off.
An all-female panel of CEO’s discussed rising food prices and the increasing number of parents struggling to feed their families. In fact, they said, many educated and middle class families find themselves using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the first time.
At least 80% of students in NYC public school qualify for free lunch. In response to the growing need, the United States Department of Agriculture is spending $400 million on the Summer Meals Program which starts in New York City on June 27. Yet only 16 percent of eligible children are expected to participate. Why? According to speakers at the forum, that "stigma" and "embarrassment" often keep people from taking advantage of the services.
My family's turn to provide afternoon snacks for my daughter’s 1st-grade class comes up next week, and I'm anxiously awaiting the backlash. When you make dietary choices for 23 New York City kids, only one of whom is yours, some other parent will often take exception.
It's easy to frame the classroom snack debate in broad terms such as cupcakes vs. carrot sticks. The prevalence of sugary cupcakes in elementary classrooms received so much attention that one school district banned them outright. But cupcakes are (forgive me for mixing food terms) a red herring. You don't give a kid a cupcake and kid yourself you're serving health food.
The problem occurs when the little kids are served food that appears healthy but is actually more dessert than snack.
The first day of 1st grade typically holds a few unpleasant surprises, and Thursday's start of the school year was no exception. The most serious problem was rain, which at my daughter’s elementary school meant returning students were quickly handed off to unfamiliar adults at the door rather than allowed to gather in classroom groups in the playground.
For me, rain meant no meeting the new teachers, no leisurely mingling with parents, just a quick goodbye to my nervous 5-year-old as she was whisked inside the building. The coddling my daughter and I experienced in kindergarten, when camera-toting parents were allowed to accompany their darlings from a secluded gathering spot to the new classroom, had been replaced by institutional efficiency. The first day of kindergarten is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but the first day of 1st grade is more like your second wedding: You know a lot more about what awaits, and you don’t get as many presents or take as many photos.
Second unpleasant surprise: After watching my daughter disappear, I walked 10 paces and realized I was still holding her backpack.
The report was released last week to a packed auditorium in Food and Finance High School Quinn was introduced by an articulate student from Food and Finance, who said his ambition to become a chef had been nurtured by the school’s many programs. In addition to offering internships in the city and study of agriculture abroad through the 4H club, the school, in partnership with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, runs an aquaponics program, growing fish and vegetables in a classroom. (Last summer Cornell announced plans to construct a large rooftop greenhouse at Food and Finance.)
Many of FoodWorks' 59 proposals touched on schools, not surprising as 25% of New York’s children are obese and schools are the fourth most numerous food outlet category in the city, the report notes.
School-related proposals include:
- Strengthen the Child Nutrition Act, providing more money for improved lunch and breakfast while streamlining the process for qualifying for free lunch.
- Mandate breakfast in the classroom for all high needs schools. In a recent study New York’s participation in school breakfast ranked second to last among large urban school districts. (Breakfast in the classroom is currently an opt-in program; to sign up, schools should call Keith Graham at 718-707-4523).
- Expand salad bars in schools. Currently there are fewer than 600 salad bars for our 1,500 schools.
- Improve the summer meal program, which is served at 300 summer schools as well as other sites.
- Expand the capacity of schools to cook. Currently only about one-fifth of schools are able to cook meals from scratch on site.
- Identify alternatives to Styrofoam in schools and other city food programs. Citing the parent-founded organization Styrofoam Out of Schools (SOS), the report says the City Council will co-sponsor a national design challenge for alternative lunch trays.
- Ensure that garden education is available citywide. The 300 school gardens currently in operation do not meet educational demand, and many teachers are not aware of how to incorporate garden education into their curriculum. Groups that provide garden programming include the Horticulture Society, the Parks Department’s Green Thumb program, and others.
The report’s endnotes cite a number of links to studies and references for looking in greater depth at New York City’s schools and food issues.
Quinn praised the Department of Education for its efforts to buy local food, noting it has spent some $4.5 million in regional food since 2006.