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  • Writer's pictureNatalya Murakhver

Happy First Birthday NYC Healthy School Food Alliance!

It's hard to believe that one year ago, I formed the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance. Looking back, I really had no idea what this was going to be, or how many schools and parents and politicians and doctors and advocates I would meet and work with. But I did know that I wanted to do something more than complain about school food. I wanted to make a difference that would have a lasting impact on the health — and opportunity for success — of the next generation of children.

I started out small, working on the school food and wellness environment at PS 261 where my children go—growing a garden, adding nutrition education in every grade through Spoons Across America, choosing the Alternative Menu, and removing chocolate milk every day but Friday. I added monthly fruit and vegetable tastings and got donations from Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, I brought the Pure Food Workshop to our 4th and 5th grade classrooms and I started to see the changes.

Parents coming up to me, hugging me, saying, "My kid never liked to try new foods, but thanks to your tastings and nutrition education, now he does!"

"My child reads nutrition labels now and checks the sugar content!"

"We made the Veggie Chili the kids learned at Pure Food Workshop."

I saw children of all races and social classes, working in the garden, eating snap peas off the vine, smiling and proud.

It felt good. But I also felt that this should be what every school looked like, not just one where PTAs were well-funded and parents had the time to put in to make the change. I knew what I wanted to see happen, I just didn't know how to make that change more systemic.

Then, at a meeting of Wellness Council leaders, I luckily ended up sitting next to a woman named Rachel. We started chatting and I told her how frustrated I was that the Office of Food and Nutrition Services was serving essentially fast food to all children, that there were not gardens in every school, that NYC had a Wellness Policy that required nutritious food and 120 minutes of physical education a week, which no school was realistically able to provide to their communities. I vented. I ranted. And then she said, "Wow. You are really fired up. I work with Borough President Eric Adams and I think you should come meet with us." So I did. He told me he believed that the entire school food system needed to be revolutionized. I agreed. But how? What should it look like? I set out to find out.

Being a lawyer and a reporter, I did what I always do. I began interviewing people and doing lots of research. I read Free for All by Jan Poppendieck (a must read). I met with folks who had been doing this work a lot longer than me. Claire Raffel at the Tisch Center on Food Nutrition and Education Policy; Nancy Easton, founder of Wellness in the Schools; Ann Cooper, founder of the Chef Ann Foundation; Robert Oliver, founder of FAN4Kids, Curt Ellis, founder of Food Corps; Aimee Hamlin, founder of Coalition for Healthy School Food, and so many more. And I wrote a big story on Heated that summarized what I found.

From those interviews and meetings, I culled four policy changes that together would make the most impact on the health and success of the next generation of children being educated in public schools:

  1. Scratch Cooking in all public schools

  2. Nutrition Education in every grade

  3. Gardens in every school

  4. More time for lunch and recess

I had my mission. Now I just needed to get it done. So, I did what most people do when they want to make it appear as though they have things together. I built a website, started a Twitter feed, asked someone what Instagram was, and formed a Facebook group. And in October 2018, the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance was born.

We have accomplished so much in our first year! Here are just a few of our major accomplishments and achievements:

  • We successfully advocated for the introduction of the Scratch-Cooking Implementation Bill, which will require the DOE to come up with a roll-out plan and budget for making scratch-cooked food accessible to all public school children!

  • We successfully advocated for the funding of the Food-Ed Hub which will support nutrition education in public schools

  • We created a toolkit for schools to Improve their food and wellness environment on our Resources Page and wrote blog post too.

  • We held the first-ever March for Healthy School Food

  • We met with the Mayor's office of Food Policy and introduced our four asks

  • We met with Office of Food & Nutrition Services and have been participating in their bi-monthly planning meetings and working groups

  • We have developed strong relationships with City Council including Speaker Corey Johnson, Education Committee Chair Mark Treyger, CM Helen Rosenthal, CM Rafael Espinal, and CM Ben Kallos

  • We have been invited on the Brian Lehrer Show, and had our work covered repeatedly in the media

  • We have filed papers to become a formal non-profit!

So, yes, it's been a great first year.

Looking ahead, we have a meeting with OFNS planned, we are working on our budget asks for next year (water jets, water bottle filling stations, gardens and garden educators and nutrition ed are in there!), and are planning a Lobby Day at City Hall, an Eat-In for Council Members, and more robust community outreach.

If you would like to become more involved in any of these please join one of our planning committees!

Monday, October 28th, 11am: Event Planning Committee Conference Call (will work on Lobby Day, Eat In and March for Healthy School Food)

Conference 712-775-7270

Access code 146381

Tuesday November 12th, 12:30pm: Community Outreach Committee Conference Call

Conference 712-775-7270

Access code 146381

I could not have accomplished this work without the support and advice of Nancy Easton and Bill Telepan, Rachel Atcheson and BP Eric Adams, Eric Goldstein, and the amazing Donna Perry, Natalya Murakhver, Alexina Cather, Naidre Miller, and Ryan Cioffi, who have really championed this cause and taken leadership roles in the NYCHSFA. Since this is as close to an Oscar's Speech as I will ever get, I also want to say thank you to my husband Craig Weiner who tells me I can do anything. Thank you all!


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