School nutrition programs get higher profile as policies change in Albany, Washington

by Alan Wechsler

On Board Online • February 19, 2018

By Alan Wechsler
Special Correspondent

School food service operations in New York State are dealing with a lot of change at once, from both state and federal authorities.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a five-point plan in January, including a demand that "lunch shaming" be eliminated.

And the Trump administration is loosening federal nutrition requirements.

School food service managers say all the attention on what's on the plate is just fine. They are pleased that there is now wider recognition that schools cannot fulfill their missions without a lot of attention paid to child nutrition.

Gemma Humphries, food service director for the Rochester City School District, says teachers notice the difference immediately when students begin work in class with a full stomach.

"They are so much calmer once their hunger is satiated," she said.

In his State of the State address in early January, Gov. Cuomo unveiled a No Student Goes Hungry program.

His proposal includes:

"No child should ever go hungry, and by launching the No Student Goes Hungry program, New York will ensure hundreds of thousands of students of all ages will receive access to free and reduced-price meals," Cuomo said.

A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests about half the school districts in the country have used some sort of shaming to get parents to pay lunch bills.

A New York Times story in April 2017 gave examples including a student from Pennsylvania whose hot lunch was tossed in the garbage when the cashier discovered an unpaid bill from a year earlier, an Alabama student whose arm was stamped with the words, "I need lunch money," and a New Mexico student who received a cheese sandwich in place of a hot lunch due to his financial situation.

The Times gave no examples from New York State. School food service managers interviewed for this story said there has a concerted effort, statewide, to ensure that there is no meal deprivation, even when student accounts are in the red.

"In our district, every child eats," said Pat Cacace, director of food and nutrition at Freeport Public Schools in Nassau County.

Cacace remembers days when schools had separate lunches for students who got free lunches. Today, students swipe an ID card at the cafeteria check-out, which gives no indication of whether the student is paying or qualifies for a free lunch.

In addition, the school has a very active program to let parents know about how to apply for free lunches for their kids. For instance, cafeteria workers set up a table on open school night to help parents fill out applications, and take part in the annual spring Health and Wellness Fair as well.

Under federal guidelines, children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level for their size family are eligible for free school meals, and children between 130 to 185 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for reduced price meals. For instance, a school can charge no more than 30 cents for a reduced-price breakfast.

Schools in areas with a significant percentage of families living in poverty can qualify for what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "community eligibility." This enables schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications. Schools are reimbursed using a federal formula based on local poverty rates and other criteria.

For five years, the Troy City School District used community eligibility to provide free breakfasts, lunches and even dinners (for those who take part in after-school programs).

Adam Hotaling, assistant superintendent for business, said enough students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches (FRPL) that it was just easier to do it this way. "We have a lot of kids who qualify," he said.

Meanwhile, programs to offer breakfast are getting more attention. Cuomo plans to provide an estimated $7 million in capital funds to support expanded breakfast for 1,400 schools. Cuomo says the $7 million in capital funds will be used for technical assistance and equipment such as coolers and vending machines.

While some districts rely on their cafeterias to serve breakfast, the latest trend is "Breakfast After the Bell" programs in which students grab something from a hallway cart and eat in their classroom.

Cuomo cited the Newburgh Enlarged City School District's Breakfast After the Bell program in his State of the State as a prototype.

This month, Newburgh's program was ranked third in the nation by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). The group surveyed 75 of America's large school districts and ranked them based on participation rates.

The program aims to make breakfast a less stressful meal. Instead of students starting the day in a noisy, boisterous cafeteria, they can have meals in the classroom, a much more subdued environment. In Newburgh, some teachers play soft music, said Caitlin Lazarski, director of food service.

It also gives teachers a chance to meet with students one-on-one at the start of the day, she said.

"It's a very calming environment," Lazarski said. "Breakfast in the cafeteria used to be chaotic."

The foods served for breakfast vary among schools. In Newburgh, elementary schools have meals that are brought around on a cart - an egg sandwich, pancakes (no syrup - too messy), muffins, cheese sticks, yogurt, cereal bars. Middle and high school students can pick "grab 'n' go" type of meals on their way to homeroom.

Newburgh's Breakfast After the Bell program avoids shaming students; in earlier years, low-income students went to the cafeteria for breakfast while their wealthier friends didn't.

"Kids are smart - they're aware. They don't want to be identified as a family in need. A lot of them would rather go hungry," Lazarski said. "By offering these programs, no one knows."

Rochester also has begun a Breakfast After the Bell program - after overcoming some resistance. Humphries said custodians expressed concerns about mice and teachers didn't like the idea of having a classroom mess to clean up every day. But the idea of getting students ready to learn took precedence.

The district is currently expanding the program to all of its schools. "It's a painful process," she said. "When you have 19 schools that you have to convince that it has to be done, it takes a lot of work, a lot of trips back and forth."

Reaction to Cuomo's plan to encourage more use of New York farm products seems to depend on geography.

"We're very much in favor of working with local farmers, but the logistics of delivery and availability has always been a hindrance," said Superintendent Kishore Kuncham of Freeport Public Schools. Freeport is near Kennedy Airport and a long away from the nearest farm. "Sometimes the supply is a challenge," Kuncham said.

The concept also needs more clarification, he added. For instance, Chobani is a New York-produced yogurt - a food heartily supported by Cuomo in years past through his Yogurt Summit. But does it qualify as a farm product? "We're not sure," Kuncham said.

Overall, the focus on the importance of child nutrition from the governor is welcome, according to food service managers.

"Thirty years ago we were serving Little Debbie snacks and chicken wings," said Rochester's Humphries. "There used to be fryers in the kitchen. That's completely gone, and I don't think that's a bad thing."


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