On Tuesday, the City Council led by Council Member Robert Jackson, chair of The Education Committee and Council Member Darlene Mealy, chair of The Contracts Committee, held a public hearing about DOE School Food policies and contracts.  School food has become such a hot topic that many activists and parents who showed up for the hearing were forced to stand in a waiting room until seats in the hearing room became available.  The hearing began with members of the Council directing questions to a DOE panel comprised of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, Eric Goldstein, Director of School Food, and Chef Jorge Callazo, executive chef of School Food.  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.  Below is a summary of what I learned from the hearing.

-   500 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 forces families to do so) to determine whether they qualify for free or reduced lunch.  As reported in The New York Times on Tuesday, a family of four earning $28,665 or less qualifies for free lunch; for reduced lunch the cut off is $40,793.  Reduced lunch students pay 25 cents a meal and full lunch students pay $1.50 a meal.  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 the child 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 lunch bills instead of engaging parents to get involved in their child’s education?

During the hearing Deputy Chancellor Grimm admitted that 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.  Time and precious resources are being taken away from the actual job of teaching the city’s students to have school administrators act as a collection agency for the DOE.  Council Members at the hearing were clearly frustrated by the situation, although it wasn’t clear what if anything could be done about it.  Council Member David Greenfield of District 44 in Brooklyn suggested that maybe an $8 million loss, considering the DOE’s operating budget is over $20 billion, was 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% of NYC children avail themselves of it.   When asked at the hearing why so few students take advantage of the free breakfast that is offered, Deputy Chancellor Grimm had no answer.  In other cities, like Philadelphia, where a vast majority of the students eat the free breakfast, 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 to all the city’s students.

-     A big chunk of the hearing focused on procuring more local produce for school meals.  Right now 14% 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.  When Deputy Chancellor Grimm was asked how much of the regional produce bought by the DOE is dairy and how much fruits and vegetables, she conspicuously failed to answer the question.  Regional farmers admitted that many small to medium farmers don’t have the processing capacity to meet the specific requirements of the DOE, 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 when City Council Members plan to push for the procurement of more local produce.  Council Member Margaret Chin was especially insistent about getting more local produce into NYC schools as it’s good for business both on the city and state level, and that the DOE had to do better than 14%.

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 3 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 Council Member Jackson held up the loaf of bread demanding to know why it wasn’t “whole wheat” as so many DOE officials have claimed 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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