New York City School Food: Past and Present | Civil Eats

New York City School Food: Past and Present

New York City was among the earliest of the urban school districts to implement a consistent school lunch program in the United States. More than 50 years prior to its formal integration into city schools, New York City’s Children’s Aid Society began a school lunch program in 1853. These and other scattered volunteer and non-profit efforts were taken up nationwide by municipal school boards and integrated into the larger efforts to address the growing nutritional needs of America’s urban schoolchildren.

As a federally funded school food program evolved from its inception in the first half of the 20th century to become a permanent fixture in the educational landscape across the country, the NYC school food program became a leading influence in the country’s experiments, failures, and successes in school food service. School and city officials sorted through the wrong ingredients for school lunches and exposed the detrimental effects of decreased funding for school lunch programs. Eventually, engaging students in understanding the nutritious value of the food they consumed righted the relationship between children and their food and connected students to the source of their meals through school gardens and food education programming.

The National School Lunch Act was enacted in 1946 with the “basic purpose…to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children by encourage them to eat more nutritious foods.” Yet by 1972, the New York Times deemed Americans “nutritional illiterates” and the cost of malnutrition had an estimated $30 billion annual price tag. Lack of nutritional awareness paired with the problems caused by the country’s dire economic situation. At this time doctors in NYC suggested nutrition education in schools as a method for improving health and nutritional awareness. However, more fundamental concerns for school security, the basic lack of food for residents across the City, and a lack of funding for such nutritional education programs meant that these suggestions were not made manifest.

In 1977, just two months after the report from the federal General Accounting Office revealed poor nutritional quality in large urban school districts across the country, NYC’s schools adopted the Energy Factor program. Rather than integrate nutritional education programs or involve students in the processes of bringing the food from the field to the lunch table, schools responded to the flash and glamour of the fast food industry that captured the attention of the whole country. Since hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried chicken were attractive to student consumers, they were served as options in the Energy Factor and considered healthy alternatives to “junk food, Twinkies, cupcakes, and the like.” Yet at the same time the NYC School Board implemented fast-food lunches in the three pilot schools, it also contemplated introducing salad bars into school food options. Two seemingly opposite food futures faced NYC students. They could choose hamburgers, which had risen to the status of a nutritionally superior lunch item – at least in comparison to what had been served on lunch trays or brought in brown paper bags from students’ homes previously. Or, on the other hand, there was a glimmer of an idea to provide them with fresh greens on a salad bar. Given heavy marketing efforts for the Energy Factor and continued lack of infrastructure to support healthy food education and school gardening, the future of salads as the preferred lunch choice was bleak.

While the Energy Factor was adopted with the support of school officials and promoted by the head school food administrator, Elizabeth Cagan, by 1980 the “nutritional message” of the program had become questionable. Cagan realized that student retention and and increased participation in the lunch program was not a sufficient goal if it meant a compromise on the healthfulness of the food . Cagan fought hard for the removal of all frozen food pack lunches (the equivalent of a TV dinner) and reduced the number of schools serving such meals from 400 to 100. Nutritional experts like Ann Cook, who promoted school lunch as “where the good food is now,” tried to combat the poverty and junk food stigmas formerly associated with the school lunch program.

In the early years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, rearranging the priorities and tactics of serving school meals in New York City came to a head. By 2010 a collaboration of the Mayor’s Fund, GrowNYC and other government agencies established the Citywide School Gardens Initiative, promoting garden and food education through funding, garden maintenance assistance, and coordinated educational tools and programs like the Garden-to-Café harvest events. A grant from the Fund for Public Health in New York City propelled the healthy food options in schools to include a salad bar at each lunchtime period, finally bringing the efforts of school food reformers in the 1980s to fruition.

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The purpose of the Garden-to-Café program, which is administrated the New York City Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood, is to help children connect the origin of their food with its related nutritional quality and fresh taste. During the 2011 spring harvest season, the program facilitated events at 19 schools throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Throughout the 2010-2011 school year, the program partnered with 55 NYC public, charter, elementary, middle and high schools, in effect exposing more than 35,000 students throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn to the efforts of the Garden-to-Café program.

The School Gardens Initiative and the Garden-to-Café program are the result of NYC’s commitment to bringing healthy food and nutritional education opportunities to its students. Wrestling with the disconnects between students and their food source; a lack of government funding and a need to feed schoolchildren; and fast food culture and a focus on health, the NYC school food program has ultimately provided substantial opportunities for healthy and local food education and continues to improve the quality of its meals for all students.

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Sarah Benoit grew up in southwest Michigan and attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where she earned her bachelor's degree in Urban Studies & European Studies. Beginning in 2009 she spent a year living in Ann Arbor, Michigan and became interested in Detroit’s urban agricultural activities. Sarah received her M.A. in Urban Studies from Fordham University in New York City, completing her thesis on the role of seasons in local food education in the NYC local food system. She is an avid cook, soulful eater, and committed food localist. Sarah blogs about cities and food at her site, Eat Dwell Inquire. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Read more >

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  1. Here at Butter Beans, we have a very similar mission to The School Gardens Initiative and the Garden to Safe program. Kids deserve healthy options, and it's so great to see that other people think so, too! We cater to 11 schools throughout NYC and Brooklyn, serving delicious and nutritious meals everyday. We also offer cooking classes, seasonal food education curriculums, and a spectacular Food & Garden camp for youngsters! Check out our blog ( or our website ( To Civil Eats, please consider us for a small feature or shout-out in one of your school lunch articles in the future.

    Thanks and all the best,

    Butter Beans Intern

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