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What New York City Schools Learned Feeding Millions During the Pandemic

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

Original article written by Nadra Nittle for Civil Eats.

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.

During the pandemic, NYCDOE 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. “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. But mingled in with the praise for NYCDOE’s efforts are also concerns: 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. 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 article goes on to outline NYCDOE's successes in their school food programs, including making their take-home meal kits and take-out meals available to the entire community. 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 is especially pleased by the no-questions-asked approach to feeding the entire community, as NYCDOE meals are available to the public regardless of income, citizenship, or age. The article then discusses how COVID-19 offered schools an opportunity to serve 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. McCarthy notes 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.

Lastly, the article touches on the future efforts to improve meal access and increase 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. Alexina Cather, deputy director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center, 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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