Today’s NYT City Room blog has a piece on parent initiatives to improve school food. Lemme walk you through it:
1. First the story looks at parents’ desire to get rid of Styrofoam cafeteria trays, which a) may leach icky chemicals into food and b) are a humungo landfill-clogger. NYC public schools generate 850,000 trays EVERY DAY, according to Styrofoam Out Of Schools.
2. Then we have the Department of Education’s ban on bake sales. (The City Room blog did a nice job covering that brain-melting story.) The DoE says bake sales can be unhealthy, but parents are allowed to sell the food the DoE itself sells in vending machines, which they say IS healthy, even though it includes stuff like Doritos and Pop-Tarts. (Surely just coincidence that they’re Pepsico products, Pepsico being the company the DoE’s vending-machine partnership is with.) Parents can go to Costco to buy these products (servings have to be individually packaged, according to the DoE’s rules) and sell them once a month. The DoE has backed off on its initial TOTAL ban on homemade food, but they’ve limited its sale to once a month. You probably know how public school budgets have been pulverized; limiting our fundraising is a serious hardship. And at my kids’ school, the biggest bake-sale hit, made by some Japanese parents, has been rice balls. You gonna tell me Doritos are healthier than rice balls? Or homemade organic banana bread?
ANYWAY: East Village Community School (EVCS), one of four progressive public schools in the East Village (my kids’ school is another) had been paying for its sugar-cane-based cafeteria trays with organic popcorn sales every Friday. A parent donated a popper. The NYT article isn’t all that clear on this point, but the trays cost a teeny bit more than Styrofoam ones…AND the DoE doesn’t compost. So the school was doing a pilot program to pay for its own composting as well as the extra cost of the healthy trays. But now they can’t, because they’re only allowed to sell the popcorn once a month, and that won’t raise enough to cover the costs of the environmental efforts. Got it?
3. There’s another initiative happening called Trayless Tuesdays, in which paper boats (like the kind hot dogs come in at ballgames, only a little wider) are used instead of trays. Those aren’t being recycled either, but at least they’re not Styrofoam.
The commenters on the NYT article are bellowing at cross-purposes. One refrain: Jeez, if your school’s biggest problem is Styrofoam, CRY ME A RIVER, my kids’ school doesn’t have BOOKS. The other: GET A FRIGGIN’ DISHWASHER, LAMEASSES.
My response to refrain #1: EVCS isn’t wealthy. My kids’ school isn’t either — I believe the latest stats were that 35% of our families qualify for free lunch. Our PTA digs deep and fundraises creatively to pay for what I’d consider essentials — art and music. Parents pay for classrooms’ PAPER. PAPER!! But that doesn’t mean we can’t also try to improve what our kids eat and what happens to the planet.
Response to refrain #2: Solutions SOUND easy when you’re on the outside, but once you’re in the trenches (as I’m sure Debby Lee of Styrofoam out of Schools and Helen Greenberg, Popcorn Lady of EVCS can attest) — you see how hard it is to make changes in the system. Our school’s food committee immediately wanted to know why we couldn’t get washable trays — and the answer is that our school building is 140 years old, and has barely been modernized, and getting the plumbing and kitchen upgrades necessary to install a dishwasher would be prohibitively expensive and would require permit-getting, and have I mentioned that we are a school that can barely pay for its own music and art? And then we’d have to deal with the DoE’s bureaucracy in getting the plumbing done. (My husband helped our school library with computer upgrades, and navigating DoE-approved vendors and devices and combination packages practically gave him an aneurism.) And yes, we desperately want to improve school lunch, but as is true of many schools in ancient buildings, our kitchen is barely a kitchen. The hard-working kitchen staff has microwaves and warming ovens; they don’t have a stovetop to cook on, so all they can do is reheat. I don’t mean to demonize the DoE in this, either — the number of students they serve is equal to the population of my home state of Rhode Island and they’re under crazy budget constraints themselves. They have to try to forge partnerships and cut deals with vendors. I get it. But selling out our kids’ health AND parents’ need to pay for necessary programs to educate our children isn’t how to go about it.
So: Jamie Oliver, can we have $800,000? And a self-sustaining way to continue to pay for these healthy initiatives after you go back to your country with universal health care?
Oh, and PS. A family in our school made a documentary called “What’s On Your Plate?” in which two city kids learn where food comes from, why we should try to make healthy choices, and why it’s so hard to improve school lunch. It’s delightfully not-reductive. It’s airing on Discovery’s Planet Green and elsewhere; check the film’s web site for deets.
And PPS: On Thursday March 18th there will be a protest against Regulation A-812, limiting the sales of home-baked goods at public school bake sales. It’s from 4-6pm at City Hall. Activist parents will have two tables: one with home-baked goods, and another with the “approved” items: Doritos, Fritos, Pop-Tarts, and Snapple. Yum-O. Find out more at NYC Green Schools.