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Few Answers At City Council’s School Food Hearing

So many parents and activists showed up for a City Council hearing on school food last week that the hearing room overflowed.

The hearing, called by Robert Jackson, chair of the council’s Education Committee, and Darlene Mealy, chair of The Contracts Committee, specifically focused on the policies and contracts of the Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood. First, council members questioned Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, SchoolFood director Eric Goldstein, and Executive Chef Jorge Callazo. The bulk of the questions focused on the collection of lunch fees from reduced and full paying students, on the universal free breakfast program, and on the procurement of more local produce for school meals.

This is what I learned:

  • Five hundred of the city’s 1,600 schools participate in the universal free meals program, meaning all the students at those schools receive free lunch. For the rest, parents must fill out forms requiring them to reveal their income (it is the only time the DOE asks families to do so) to determine whether they qualify for free or reduced lunch. As the New York Times reported earlier this week, a family of four earning $28,665 or less qualifies for free lunch; for reduced lunch the cutoff is $40,793.Reduced-fee students pay 25 cents a meal and full lunch students pay $1.50 a meal. Schools often don’t collect these small lunch fees. Many parents who qualify for free or reduced school lunch haven’t filled out the forms for a variety of reasons, while other parents simply aren’t paying for the lunch their children are eating. In fact, some schools already owe as much as $30,000 for lunches not paid. At this rate, the DOE stands to lose as much as $8 million by the end of the school year.Chancellor Black is threatening principals that if they don’t collect the money that is owed, the money will be deducted from their schools’ budgets. But principals have no leverage over parents who don’t pay: They can’t stop children from attending school; they can’t even withhold their report cards. In fact, city rules require that elementary and middle school students who are behind in their lunch payments who come to school with no lunch must be fed the same meal as everyone else. So the only thing principals can do is harass and beg. Is this really how we want our principals to be spending their time, pestering parents about paying their bills instead of engaging parents to get involved in their child’s education? Most schools have one staff member whose primary job is to collect the lunch money, help families fill out the forms, and match forms with the price scale to make sure students are paying what they’re supposed to, Deputy Chancellor Grimm said at the hearing. This means that time and precious resources are being taken away from the actual job of educating students to have school administrators act as a collection agency for the DOE. Council members were clearly frustrated by the situation, although it never became clear what, if anything, could be done about it.Councilman David Greenfield of Brooklyn suggested that an $8 million loss, considering the DOE’s operating budget is over $20 billion, might be something the DOE could swallow so that principals and administrators could be spared the thankless job of acting as collection agents and could instead focus their attention on improving the education of their students. His suggestion made a lot of sense to me and other people at the hearing.
  • New York City does have a universal free breakfast program, but unfortunately, only 32.5 percent of city students avail themselves of it. When asked at the hearing why so few students take advantage of the free breakfast that is offered, Grimm had no answer. In other cities, such as Philadelphia, a vast majority of the students eat the free breakfast. There, the breakfast is served in the classroom, avoiding the stigma for children of showing up early to school to eat breakfast in the cafeteria. There also seemed to be a general consensus at the hearing that principals are not doing a good enough job of getting the word out to parents that free breakfast is available.
  • A big chunk of the hearing focused on procuring more local produce for school meals. Right now 14 percent of the food served in our schools is procured locally. The DOE spends $13 million a year on milk that’s produced locally and $2 million on yogurt. Grimm conspicuously failed to answer a question about how much of the regional produce bought by the DOE is dairy and how much fruits and vegetables. Regional farmers told the council that many small-to-medium farmers don’t have the processing capacity to meet the DOE’s specific requirements, but they said that if the DOE would commit to long-term contracts with local farmers, those farmers would be willing to make the financial investment in equipment to meet the DOE’s needs.DOE food contracts are up in March 2013, and City Council members say they plan to push for the procurement of more local produce after that time. Councilwoman Margaret Chin was especially insistent about getting more local produce into city schools, arguing that doing so is good for business both on the city and state level. The city has to buy more than 14 percent of its food locally, she said.
  • I also learned at the hearing that the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill’s 6 cents increase per lunch would have no noticeable impact on New York City school lunches, as the extra money will go toward paying increases in food costs that the DOE is already incurring.

When City Council Members were done peppering DOE officials with questions, the microphones were finally turned over to the public who were allowed three minutes each to give their testimony. One public school parent brought a loaf of the wheat bread sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup and containing caramel coloring that is served in our city’s schools. An irate Robert Jackson held up the loaf of bread demanding to know why it wasn’t “whole wheat” as so many DOE officials have claimed is serve and which DOE contracts apparently call for. Unfortunately, no DOE official was left in the hearing room to answer the chairman’s question.

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