As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’m kicking off my 10th year of blogging with a new Changemakers series, in which I’ll periodically highlight people around the country who are working hard to help improve our children’s food environment.
My series begins with today’s interview with Andrea Strong, a mom, lawyer, and journalist who has become a passionate advocate for better school food in New York City. She recently formed an organization called the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, which this Sunday (June 9th) will be leading a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the steps of City Hall to rally for better quality school food.
TLT: What first led you to become interested in improving NYC’s school food and forming the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance?
AS: I’ve been a food writer for the past two decades and during that time, I wrote about and got to know Wellness in the Schools’ Bill Telepan and Nancy Easton. I was very inspired by their work. So I thought I had some idea of what was going on in school lunchrooms. But I didn’t really until my kids started public school and I started volunteering in the lunchroom and started seeing what was served. I was rather horrified. It was all fast food—mozzarella sticks, burgers, pizza, branded Tostitos Taco bowls, and limp sad salad bars. And chocolate milk. How could this be? We are NYC, the greatest city and certainly the greatest culinary city. I was dismayed.
I also noticed how hungry my kids were after school. When I looked in their lunchboxes most of their lunch was still in there; they barely ate. When I asked them why they didn’t eat, they said “Mom, we have no time!” So that stayed with me.
As I continued to spend more time in the lunchrooms, I began to work to improve their school’s wellness programming. I formed a Wellness Council and we adopted the Alternative Menu (more scratch-cooked food). We brought free nutrition ed programming into every grade through Spoons Across America. We added monthly fruit and vegetable tastings run by parent volunteers. We started growing a garden with the kids. We added a morning Track Club.
I was proud of what we were doing at [my children’s school], but as I read more and more about the rising levels of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in children across the city, I felt the need to ensure this was happening at every school.
It was around this time that I happened to meet Borough President Eric L. Adams’ Deputy Strategist Rachel Atcheson at a school wellness conference. I told her that I wanted to change school food and shared how frustrated I was. I might have gone on a small rant. She said, YES! Let’s do it. So Adams became a huge champion of this movement —the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance —which I formed in October to revolutionize school food from garden to classroom.
TLT: How would you describe the organization’s key goals? And do you view any of those goals more urgent, with others taking a back burner? Or are they all equally pressing?
AS: Like you, I am a former lawyer and now a journalist. I think what both lawyers and journalists have in common is a quest for information and truth. I approach everything with a need to research and really understand the nuts of bolts of a problem to fix it. When I started the Alliance I began to read everything about school food in America and to interview dozens of people working in the school food and wellness space to figure out how to reimagine the entire system.
I came away with four critical changes that were essential to any real holistic reform:
First, change the food—bring back home cooking, meals made from real ingredients cooked by real people—no more highly-processed bag to oven fast food.
Second, change the mindset. As I see it, changing the food without adding hands-on nutrition and culinary education, is the sound of one hand clapping. Study after study shows that if you teach kids nutrition education and the importance of being mindful of what they put in their body, not only does it improve their choices around food, but it improves their health and their test scores and lowers absenteeism.
Third, grow the food. We want gardens in every school, not just at those schools with enough PTA funding to support it. Studies also show how important growing the food is to creating lifelong healthy habits and to show children from a young age how important it is to sustain the earth. That connection to the earth is key.
The final change is probably the hardest, but might be the most important and that is to increase the time children have to eat and play at lunchtime to one full hour (30 minutes for each). Right now, lunch and recess are 45 minutes with 20 minutes total for kids to eat, which is about 6 minutes of eating time after unpacking, waiting in the lunch line, talking, telling jokes, and packing back up and getting in line to go back to class. That’s why kids are so hungry — they are rushed. Lunch should not be an interruption in the day. Instead, let’s make it an opportunity for gratitude and socialization. Give them 30 full minutes and you will have kids who have time to eat and socialize and enjoy and finish their lunches. That way they don’t snack after school, which leads to obesity. And then let them run around for a full 30 minutes before we put them back in those classrooms. We will see the results in their performance and behavior.
If we implement these four changes we can make a meaningful impact on the next generation of children.
TLT: How do you hope to fund these goals? Entirely from the city’s budget? A mix of public/private funding? Something else?
AS: We hope the Mayor and the city will prioritize our children’s health and fund these asks. New York City can look at places like Denver — it passed Ordinance 302, which established a nominal sales tax (less than a penny on any $10 purchase) to fund healthy food access and education programs for youth in Denver over ten years. Washington, D.C. recently passed the Healthy Student Act Amendment, which includes a provision for a central kitchen to facilitate scratch cooking.
This can be done. We would like to see the city roll out its Brigaid scratch cooking pilot to at least 100 schools every year until every school has it; it can do this if it brings in Wellness in the Schools as well (they are ready to go right now). We hope to see money earmarked for nutrition ed and gardens, and we want to get the United Federation of Teachers at the table to work on a new contract to have the day increased by 15 minutes so that we can get that longer lunchtime.
TLT: On a related note: as you’ve recently written about, Mayor de Blasio has just proposed cutting $24 million from Breakfast in the Classroom in NYC schools. So do you worry at all that the climate may not be right for the sorts of reforms your group is seeking? Or are you undeterred?
AS: I’m a lawyer, a journalist and most of all a mother; I am undeterred.
I know my asks are not small, but that’s because this is not meant to be a quick fix. This is a decade-long overhaul. As my friend Borough President Eric Adams says: “We are on the Titanic and we are sinking. We cannot rearrange the deck chairs. We have to fix this hole.” That is not going to happen overnight, and it may not happen under this Mayor (especially when he is already seemingly out on the campaign trail instead of focused on this city). But we have council members who believe in this movement like Rafael Espinal, Helen Rosenthal, Mark Treyger, and Ben Kallos, and many more.
This is the first generation of children that will not outlive their parents because of obesity-related disease and we have a city feeding 900,000 children a day fast food. That is not okay. Our government should not be feeding this health crisis and yet that is exactly what they are doing. So no, I will not be deterred.
TLT: What do you hope the March for Healthy School Food will accomplish, and what are your organization’s next steps, post-march?
AS: I hope that we can really come together and raise our voices and bring more attention to the health crisis facing our children, and the ways in which this city is dropping the ball in fighting that crisis.
We hope to have a slew of media come and cover the March and share our mission change the school food model and to save the next generation from diabetes and heart disease.
Post-March we plan to request a meeting with the Chancellor and the Mayor and OFNS [Office of Food & Nutrition Services] leaders and we will once again demand that our children’s health and welfare be prioritized. We hope to develop a concrete road map to get there with city officials. We can and should be a model for the rest of the country. And right now we are playing catch up. Not okay.
TLT: How can interested NYC parents get involved?
AS: Please join us for our March for Healthy School Food on June 9th (register here), follow us on Twitter, join our Facebook Group, and sign up for our newsletter here. Also read out resources page to find things like sample letters to elected officials and a toolkit to create a Wellness Council at your school. We can help you get a water jet for your cafeteria, and free nutrition education for your school, whatever you need, let us help you!
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