What NYC Schools Learned Feeding Millions During the Pandemic

What New York City Schools Learned Feeding Millions During the Pandemic

As students return to the nation’s largest public school system, advocates praise efforts to provide meals to needy students—and any resident—and identify lessons other districts could learn.

A kindergarten student eating breakfast at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on January 13, 2021 in New York City.

A kindergarten student eating breakfast at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 on January 13, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

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.

“I’ve always said the most important school supply in the world is food.”

“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.”

Stephen Ritz of The Green Bronx Machine. (Photo courtesy of Green Bronx Machine)

Stephen Ritz of Green Bronx Machine. (Photo courtesy of Green Bronx Machine)

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.

A school meal pickup site during the pandemic, coordinated by Green Bronx Machine. (Photo courtesy of Green Bronx Machine)

A school meal pickup site during the pandemic, coordinated by Green Bronx Machine. (Photo courtesy of Green Bronx Machine)

“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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COVID Offers an Opportunity for Healthier Meals

In addition to offering a variety of food to a variety of community members, the department of education has received an opportunity to rid its meals of seven harmful ingredients—trans fats; high-fructose corn syrup; hormones and antibiotics; artificial sweeteners, colors, and preservatives, and bleached flour—thanks to a five-year, $1 million grant from the Life Time Foundation announced in October. Although the school system has already eliminated some of these ingredients, notably securing antibiotic-free meats for its students, the grant will help NYCDOE accelerate the removal effort and adopt made-from-scratch cooking techniques.

Megan Flynn, a registered dietitian with the Life Time Foundation, which partners with more than 25 school districts across the country, is in the process of reviewing NYCDOE’s food labels.

“As I’ve been looking at the labels, I can really tell how much work they’ve put in over the last few years with their manufacturers on getting the product to where they want it, and I think our partnership is going to take them across the finish line concerning ingredients that we want to address,” she said.

The Life Time Foundation has already given the school system $46,000 for its immediate COVID-19 related needs, and once Flynn shares the results of her label review with the district, it can start working with vendors and request ingredient changes in products. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, she said that the effort to provide healthier meals to students continues in large part due to the work of the staff in NYCDOE’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services. “They are still going above and beyond to make sure their students have access to free, high-quality meals every school day.”

“[School kitchens] have a menu of options that they can pick from now—that used to not be the case. So there’s a little more control and ability to respond to what students at that site particularly like.”

McCarthy noted that the school system has also undergone internal changes to efficiently serve meals to students during the pandemic. This includes improving how kitchen staff communicates with the central office. Before the pandemic, she said, it was difficult for the central office and the kitchen staff to directly communicate, but now they do.

“So, they don’t have to be contingent on whispering down the lane through managers who are traveling between a variety of different schools,” McCarthy said. “Another thing is that New York City schools were trying to move to one menu where everyone was served the same food. They’ve given the kitchens control, so the kitchens have a menu of options that they can pick from now, and that used to not be the case. So, there’s a little more control and ability to respond to what students at that site particularly like.”

While New York food advocates agree that there’s plenty to applaud about the department of education’s efforts to serve meals during the pandemic, there is also room for improvement. Communicating better with families is one way experts say NYCDOE can expand its outreach during the crisis.

Improving Meal Access

Alexina Cather, deputy director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, recognizes that NYCDOE was one of the first public agencies to radically overhaul its institutional meal service, and she calls its effort “commendable.” But Cather would also like the school system to intensify its outreach efforts.

One way the agency can get more families to participate in its food programs is to make sure they can easily access information about the resources available. Cather said that when the schools shut down, even internet-savvy parents struggled to identify where they could get meals. She wants the district to come up with creative ways to get the word out about its offerings, including exactly how many people are accessing meals and the nutritional quality of the items included.

“They did a massive job overhauling this huge city agency to meet a very big need, and that’s incredible,” she said. “But I think communication is a huge reason why people aren’t accessing these meals, and I also think a lot of the low-income families, even if they know that [grab-and-go meals] exist, just can’t get to the site. Other parents are juggling working at home with also homeschooling their kid on Zoom, and they can’t get to the site [during the hours of operation], so there’s a lot of different factors.”

Grab-and-go meals are available during the business day, but school districts such as LAUSD offer food as early as 7 a.m., allowing parents to collect them before they go to work and before their child’s school day begins. Chicago Public Schools offers these meals slightly later, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but earlier than NYCDOE’s starting time of 9 a.m., while Houston Independent School District’s curbside meal pickup times vary by site.

To spread the word about its grab-and-go offerings, the Green Bronx Machine has relied on a network of community elders, faith-based groups, and housing authority leaders, Ritz said. He’s even shouted outside public housing buildings for residents to come and collect the green leafy vegetables, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables his organization grows.

School lunches are prepared by Food Service Workers at Sun Yat Sen M.S. 131 on February 25, 2021 in New York City. New York City middle school students who opted for in-person learning in 2020 were allowed back for the first time since November due to COVID-19 (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

School lunches are prepared by Food Service Workers at Sun Yat Sen M.S. 131 on February 25, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

“I can stand outside of a building and scream and talk to 1,000 residents in one shot in a 25-story building, bringing them to their windows,” Ritz said. “That really made a huge difference, and we found in the South Bronx that we are the ones we are waiting for. There were so many of our children, even pre-pandemic, who came into school to get two, sometimes, three meals a day, every day. This [pandemic] was a disruption of epic proportions.”

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With volunteers in the community each day of the week and home deliveries, the Green Bronx Machine has helped to provide food to 2,300 families daily, according to its 2020 impact report. Steps like these are necessary because many low-income families lack internet access or have a spotty connection at best, Ritz said. Summer power outages only made it harder for families to get information online. Collectively, these problems worked against the school system’s best efforts to distribute food. They also underscore how important it is to “put humanity back into the community and meet people where they are—in their apartment buildings and in their places of worship,” Ritz asserted.

The sheer amount of fear in the South Bronx likely stymied NYCDOE’s efforts as well. Rising rates of crime, substance abuse, mental illness, and the threat of the coronavirus have made some of the city’s most food-insecure families terrified to leave their homes.

“I do give credit to the New York City Department of Ed for providing meals, and I want to be very clear that by no means am I being critical,” Ritz said. “It’s a very well-intended effort, and it should be lauded and celebrated, but there are so many other mitigating factors in communities like ours that it needs to be more thought out. That’s where Green Bronx Machine got really nimble. We felt that if we were able to use the network of grandmas and grandpas and aunties and uncles and caretakers who would be able to get into buildings, we could really penetrate the impenetrable.”

Community Food Advocates’ Accles would like to see the expansion of a coordinated and sustained communications plan to ensure that everyone knows that food is available. Providing families with several days of meals at once might also increase participation in the program, as some advocates suspect that students and their parents might be accessing food from agencies outside NYCDOE. On some days, they might get school meals, and on others, they might obtain food from an emergency food provider like a soup kitchen. But Accles said that emergency food providers are limited in what they can do for families, while government agencies make a lasting difference, which is why she’d like NYCDOE to devise some flexible and creative ways for more families to get school meals.

She also recognizes that a school district like Los Angeles Unified might be outpacing New York in serving school meals because the city has more of a car culture, making it easier for families to grab and go than their New York City counterparts who rely on public transportation or walking to get to school. Los Angeles’s warm climate also means that even families who travel by foot can do so without worrying about snow, frigid temperatures, and other forms of inclement weather.

Although the infrastructure and climate of New York City is beyond the department of education’s control, without feedback from parents it will be tough for NYCDOE to maximize participation in its school food programs, Cather suspects. She’d like parents to be surveyed about their concerns and to be invited to play a role in the decisions made about school meals—from their contents to how they’re distributed.

“I’d really love to hear community members’ voices be incorporated into the city planning at this point,” she said.

But above all, Cather would like to see schools across the city reopen. As New York City’s public high schools reopen, roughly half of them will have students in class each weekday. The city’s middle schools reopened last month, and the elementary schools resumed in-person classes late last year. She said that some families might be too embarrassed to be seen waiting in line to get a free school meal. They worry what others might think, especially if their economic status worsened during the pandemic.

“New York City is amazing at having free universal breakfast and lunch so that there’s absolutely zero stigma attached,” she said. “There are kids whose parents work on Wall Street or kids living with a single parent who doesn’t have a job—anybody can have lunch. So, getting kids back in school where it doesn’t feel shameful to go wait for a meal is really important.”

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. Traulane Agrusa
    Hello I work for school foods and we have been serving and working throughout the pandemic. And while mr. Nathaniel styler thanks us it isn't quite enough. We have been working in deplorable unhealthy and unsafe conditions. No windows no air conditioning and no plastic barriers. We are very glad and proud to help feed millions of hungry people however we really need many updates. Although many of kitchen staff did contract covid19.

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