A year-long experiment in the Bronx proved it's possible to switch from overly processed to freshly prepared meals.
"After bread, education is the first need of people." These words were written in 1905 by Georges Danton in a document called 'A Plan for the State Feeding of School Children,' and they are as true today as they were back then. In order to learn, a child must be fed well, and it stands to reason that the better the quality of food, the better the learning will be.
Unfortunately the National School Lunch Program that was created in the U.S. in 1946 does not meet expectations. School lunches are notoriously bad – tasteless, frozen, often deep-fried – despite the fact that children take in more than half of their daily calories while at school. Meanwhile public health has been declining, with obesity and chronic diseases on the rise. An overhaul of the way children are fed in school is long overdue, which is why the New York City Department of Education (DOE) launched an interesting pilot project.It took place in the Bronx during the 2018-19 school year and the final report has just been published, titled 'Cooking Outside the Box.' The goal of this pilot project was to see if students could be fed full meals cooked from scratch, with a plan of eventually expanding the program to all schools within the NYC district. This required extensive guidance and retraining of staff, as well as outfitting kitchens with new equipment and prep spaces. The DOE hired Brigaid, a for-profit school food consulting company founded by Chef Dan Giusti, and chose the Bronx because "it is one of the poorest of 62 NY state counties, with the highest incidence of diet-related disease."
The pilot project, which took place in four high schools and one K-8 school, proved that it is possible to shift away from processed foods to fresh meals made on site daily from "ingredients in their most basic form." Andrea Strong reported for Heated,
"Giusti began serving a menu of homestyle meals such as hummus with freshly baked flatbreads, spaghetti and meatballs, stewed chicken and rice, turkey chili, pizza on homemade crust, and sides like slow-roasted carrots and crispy kale chips."
Kitchen staff learned how to cook, rather than just reheat prepackaged foods, and Strong writes that this became a great source of pride.
"Cooks peeled ginger root, sliced pounds of raw onions, cleaned raw chicken thighs, and measured multiple spices. The prep work was a significant shift from serving pre-packaged food such as chicken nuggets, mozzarella sticks, burgers, and beef patties that just needed to be heated to a safe temperature."
One downside was that kids' participation in the scratch-food program declined by 10 percent, but the researchers leading the pilot project are not deterred. They believe this number will increase as kids become more familiar with menus and nutrition education, and if given more time to eat their lunch.
The plan is now to scale this program to 1,800 schools across New York City, which is no small task, but the report outlines a detailed plan to do so. And when you consider the health consequences of not implementing such a change – which is likely to have a positive ripple effect into students' homes, too – it seems the least the Department of Education can do to make a lasting difference in kids' lives.
You can learn more about the pilot project and the plan to expand here.