Pizza. Mozzarella sticks. Hamburgers. French fries. Fish sticks.
This isn’t a fast food menu. These are all items that are on a New York City public school lunch menu. Why are school meals like fast food combos meals that occasionally meet nutrition standards? Why do some schools have better food options than others? Why doesn’t school food ever have enough funding?
It has been the policy of the United States to stigmatize poor students of color by serving them the cheapest, most ultra-processed, poorly tasting food in public schools. The combination of lack of funding to even allow school food authorities to cover all their costs, separating students into different categories to determine their eligibility for a school meal, and dumping unhealthy ultra-processed foods onto student lunch trays amounts to structural racism in the school food system. Indeed, when Congress first introduced the bill 1963, the southern conservative chairs of the senate and house agricultural appropriations committees worked to prevent “farm money” from funding largely urban black student populations.
What do we mean by structural racism? We adopt the Center for Social Inclusion’s definition as the accumulation of practices and policies that collectively deny people of color adequate resources and equal opportunities to thrive . With 80% of New York City’s student population being Black and Latino, and 75% percent of students eligible for free or reduced school meals, there is no doubt that the quality, nutrition, and safety of school meals impacts low-income students of color more than whites in New York City.
Just as there are government policies to dump polluting facilities on communities of color and low-income, so too there are policies that flood these communities with ultra-processed foods. And just as polluting facilities contribute to asthma, so too do unhealthy school foods contribute to childhood obesity. You don’t need a trained policy eye to read between the lines of law to see this. All you need to do is look at a school lunch in Harlem.
The goal of WE ACT’s Food Justice Initiative is for Northern Manhattan schools to have access to good food. WE ACT defines "good food" as safe, fresh, and nutritious school meals that are prepared in schools in a quality environment, that kids eat and parents support, to contribute to the reduction of childhood obesity.
WE ACT works towards this goal by organizing parents through our Food Justice Training. Our Food Justice Training consists of three workshops and aims to build a vision of what parents want for school food, educating them about the school food system, and conducting a power analysis of the school food system to understand what power we need to leverage to achieve their vision.
WE ACT currently conducts workshops at MS 328 and MS 326 in Washington Heights, Central Park East II and PS 171 in East Harlem, and PS 161 in West Harlem. In 2011, we organized 6 parents from our trainings to attend and deliver testimony at the New York City Council hearing on New York City Department of Education’s food procurement and policies.
WE ACT conducts and coordinates research to inform our food justice trainings, organizing, advocacy and policy. We are currently conducting research on the corporate supply chain of school foods and their ingredients. Through this research, we seek to understand where New York City school food comes from, where it is manufactured, who manufacturers it, who owns the system, and what’s in it. One of the results of this research thus far has been an uncovering of the ingredients of the foods purchased by the New York City Department of Education.
WE ACT has advocated for bringing supermarkets back to Harlem, increasing federal funding for school food programs, procuring transparency and accountability within the New York City Office of SchoolFood about the ingredients in their products, and more. Most recently, WE ACT has advocated in support of New York City Council Intro 452-2011, which would encourage New York City agencies to purchase New York State grown food.
WE ACT is calling for the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education to use geographic preference as a specification in their requests for bids to and contracts with food service manufacturers and distributors.Article 52-A 2590 of New York State Education law gives the Chancellor the authority to develop a procurement policy for the city school district of the city of New York and the districts and public schools therein.” Such policy must include: “(a) standards for quality, function and utility of all material goods, supplies and services purchased by the chancellor, superintendents, or schools” and “(b) regulations for the purchase of material goods, supplies and services by the chancellor, the superintendents, and the schools, including clearly articulated procedures which require a clear statement of product specifications.” Federal and state law allows school food authorities to use geographic preference in their food contracts, and according to recent USDA procurement policy memo, product specifications can be as detailed as the school food authority requiring that an apple must have been picked within one day of delivery, or must have been harvested within a certain time period.
Food Justice Resources
Crain's New York Business Article: NYC Schools Get Applesauce from China
Manhattan Times Green Times Article: 10 Ways to Improve New York City's Food System
East and Central Harlem District Public Health Office Eating Well in Harlem: How Available is Healthy Food
NYC Department of Planning: Going to Market: New York City's Neighborhod Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage
Mount Sinai Hospital: Race and the Food Store Availability in an Inner-City Neighbourhood
Journal of Preventing Chronic Disease: The Role of Race and Poverty in Access to Foods that Enable Individuals to Adhere to Dietary Guidelines
NYC Department of Health: Childhood Obesity in New York City Elementary Students
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:Improving Child Nutrition Policy: Insights from National USDA Study of School Food Environments
New York City Block Access to Nutrition Data
Iowa Senator Calls for Higher Nutrition Standards in School Lunches
Ohio Lawmakers Introduce Junk Food Ban
North Carolina School Posts Calorie Information on Digital Cafeteria Menu Boards
Healthier Lunches Modestly Reduce South Carolina Childhood Obesity Rate