With 1.1 million students, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) feeds more people every day than almost any other public institution in the country. It earned widespread praise for its decision to provide meals to not only students, but also community members in need during the pandemic. Now, experts say the school system could fine-tune its outreach efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable New Yorkers get enough to eat during an ongoing public health crisis that has given rise to an economic crisis characterized by growing rates of food, housing, and job insecurity.
With 488 public high schools scheduled to reopen in New York City on March 22, food advocates are looking back over the past year, and largely applauding the NYCDOE’s outreach to needy families. During the pandemic, the agency has operated much like a food bank, handing out meals to anyone who requests them—no questions asked. The school system has also received praise for heavily concentrating its grab-and-go meal sites in low-income communities of color—the neighborhoods most prone to food insecurity, and most vulnerable to COVID-19.
In 2020, the NYCDOE even announced plans to improve the quality of its food. And a recent study in the Journal of Urban Health described the school system as a national leader in providing information about meals in multiple languages and accommodating a variety of dietary needs with kosher, halal, and vegetarian food options.
“Preventing hunger and continuing to promote nutritious eating were critical priorities for us from the beginning of this crisis, and, over the last 11 months, we have served nearly 90 million meals to our students, whether they are learning remotely or in person, as well as any New Yorker who is in need,” said Nathaniel Styer, NYCDOE’s deputy press secretary, in a statement provided to Civil Eats.
And the community has needed the help: Food insecurity increased precipitously in the city during the pandemic, with the proportion of New Yorkers obtaining meals from food pantries or soup kitchens nearly doubling from April to November, according to a recent survey by the City University of New York. The poll also found that the percentage of families who received grab-and-go meals and other food from New York City school programs spiked more than 250 percent during the same period—from 13 percent in April to 33 percent in November.
But mingled in with the praise for NYCDOE’s efforts are also concerns: While New York City public schools have served roughly 90 million meals during the pandemic as of February 2021, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has served more than 100 million, even though its student population is about 600,000, just over half the size of New York City’s. The Journal study found that New York City had the lowest participation rate in its food distribution programs of the four large public districts studied, which also included LAUSD, Chicago, and Houston.
The researchers suggest that this finding may not be a reflection of the effectiveness of NYCDOE’s school food programs, since New York City was the epicenter of the pandemic when the study was conducted. In subsequent months, however, LAUSD also became a COVID epicenter but still managed to serve more meals over the past year. Advocates blame the discrepancy on a wide range of factors, including a communication gap between NYCDOE and the public, narrow pickup windows to collect meals, weather conditions, and families hesitant to leave their homes or use public transportation during the pandemic.
“Never has food been more at the core of societal ills and possibilities than it is right now,” said Stephen Ritz, an educator who founded Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit that uses an academic curriculum to teach students to grow vegetables. During the pandemic, the organization has worked to combat food insecurity in the South Bronx and collaborated with the NYCDOE to distribute fresh produce to students and their families.
“I’ve always said the most important school supply in the world is food,” Ritz added. “With supermarkets closing and children shopping out of bulletproof windows in gas stations and the occasional bodega . . . food is the most critical thing that we can provide to families, and most importantly fresh fruits and vegetables, because we know that is the number one thing that helps boost immunity.”
As food insecurity continues to spread in New York City, advocates say that the nation’s largest school system can keep playing a vital role in providing nutritious meals to students and their families. To expand its reach, they recommend that the NYCDOE step up communication with the public, give students and caregivers more flexibility to pick up meals, and explore strategies and partnerships to route food to the city’s most disadvantaged families. What the department does next could be a blueprint for other school districts around the country.
The Successes of NYCDOE’s School Food Programs
When the pandemic forced New York City public schools to close last March, the department of education launched its grab-and-go Meal Hub program to serve students who rely on school food to meet their nutritional needs. By April, the program expanded to include any New Yorker seeking meals during the COVID crisis. Over the summer, the Meal Hub service expanded to offer take-home meal kits, now found at more than 1,100 public schools, to allow families to retrieve food from the campuses closest to them. Take-out meals include items such as baked ravioli, beef burgers, burritos, fish patties, grilled cheese sandwiches, and omelets.
“None of this would be possible without our courageous foodservice employees, who helped the city to immediately open meal hubs at the start of the pandemic,” Styer told Civil Eats.
It’s a sentiment shared by Julia McCarthy, coauthor of the Journal of Urban Health report and interim deputy director of the Tisch Center for Food, Education, & Policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College. McCarthy noted how NYCDOE staff have worked nonstop over the past year to serve food to a population larger than “any entity in the country other than the Department of Defense.”
She’s encouraged that the public school system has chosen to take a no-questions-asked approach to feeding the entire community, as NYCDOE meals are available to the public regardless of income, citizenship, or age. Additionally, McCarthy said that her study found that New York City public schools have done a better job of concentrating its meal pickup sites in high-poverty communities than the Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston school districts have. Houston stands out, however, for maintaining the highest number of meal distribution centers in neighborhoods where residents live a half-mile or more away from a supermarket.
In New York City’s South Bronx neighborhood, located in the nation’s poorest congressional district, the needs of the community are particularly complex. There, Green Bronx Machine grew 5,000 pounds of food, rescued 10,000 additional pounds, and delivered more than 100,000 pounds of it as well. The nonprofit set up grab-and-go grocery stations near schools and partnered with NYCDOE on grab-and-go meals on school campuses. But some families find it difficult to leave their homes, preventing them from regularly visiting school meal sites, Ritz explained.
“I’m in the middle of public housing—45 buildings, 25 stories up—where little kids haven’t been able to come out more than once a week,” he said. “They are prisoners in their home experiencing a lack of exercise, a lack of activity, a lack of connectivity, and a whole lot of packaged food.”
Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, which supports public policy to give New Yorkers access to healthy, affordable, culturally appropriate food, praised the school system’s take-home meals, pointing out that, over the summer, “the pizza meal kits were very popular, and, later the holiday meals were, so we think that’s a very promising move for variety.” And by serving both students and adults in need, NYCDOE has shown an “extraordinary commitment” to the community, Accles contends.
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