Obesity and Nutrition: Interviews with Eric Goldstein and Laurie Rose Benson, NYC Dept. of Education
Eric Goldstein, the CEO of SchoolFood, the NYC Department of Education division of food and transportation, has worked to improve the healthfulness, as well as the taste, of the 860,000 meals New York City provides to public school children. In 2006, the Mayor’s office made several changes in cafeterias across the city, replacing white bread with whole wheat, and whole milk with skim and reduced-fat chocolate and white milk. High fructose corn syrup was also eliminated and fiber content was increased.
In addition to the physical challenge of getting the resources in place to improve New York City lunches as a whole, there is the political, and potentially more vexing challenge, of shifting public opinion to accepting that such changes are valuable and necessary.
The New York City Department of Education has worked since 2009 to implement a more robust District Wellness Policy, a policy that raises the standards not only for school food, but also of physical activity and physical education.
The program Garden to School Café, for instance, allows select schools to plant their own urban vegetable gardens and give special lessons on the virtues of eating greens, while incorporating a heavy dose of veggies in the school entrées, such as spicy veggie burritos, colcannon, and squash stew. The Move-to-Improve curriculum seeks to supplement basic physical education, which often does not provide the full, recommended exercise regiment, with additional small workouts incorporated within a class curriculum.
This is all part of the “calories in, calories out equation,” says Laurie Rose Benson, president of School Wellness Programs of the Department of Education. According to Benson, school lunches are just a piece of the puzzle for solving childhood obesity. With a mountain of public feedback to guide them, New York City officials and Benson updated the city’s School Wellness program in 2010, making it more robust and comprehensive.
Yet Goldstein knows that the greatest obstacle to the SchoolFoods initiative is not public opposition, but something much more simple. When asked about the most difficult challenge of having uniformly healthy meals across New York City, Goldstein says, “I love that question because it’s easy to answer. The main challenge really is money.”
Goldstein voiced his disappointment at the lack of federal support for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, a major initiative of Michelle Obama, along with the fact that salad bars and other healthy food initiatives are not reimbursed by the federal government. Healthy food options are almost always more expensive to provide than fatty, heavily processed foods.
All of these programs can prove to be in vain if fatty foods that can be attained outside of school prove more attractive to kids than school lunches. High school students, and those in poorer areas especially, are likely to skip out on school-provided lunches. A stigma is associated with school lunches, not only for their historical mediocrity, but also for the embarrassment of needing to receive a free lunch, something middle- and high-school students can understandably be sensitive about.
As Jan Poppendieck, author of “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” said, “There is no group in our society struggling more to preserve their self-esteem than 13-year-olds.” Under Goldstein’s tenure, participation rates have increased, from 28 percent among high school students in 2006-2007, to 38 percent in 2009, with similar gains in elementary and middle schools.
Dr. Nicholas Freudenberg, professor at the Hunter School of Public Health and co-author of two reports on urban obesity and school lunches, said that the next step for SchoolFood is “to ensure that these innovations are brought to all schools and funded in a sustainable way.”
In light of the ongoing recession and the budgetary restraints, Freudenberg advocates for local, state, and national policies that do more to make healthy food affordable, including, “taxing unhealthy products like soda, forcing food companies to pay for the health-related costs of products they promote and using public institutions like schools, child-care programs and universities to promote healthy eating.”
There is no quick fix for sub-par school lunches and the accompanying issue of childhood obesity. Whether it be funding, distribution, public opinion, or a host of other issues, there will always be a series of hurdles to delay progress. That they are making headway, albeit limited and deliberate headway, is cause for celebration. For that, they should garner the public’s general support. #