Today was an amazing day at City Council where I testified in support of Speaker Corey Johnson's suite of 16 Growing Food Equity bills. I am pasting my testimony below. Wanted to send a shout out to 5th grader Harper Quill and 12th Grader Tyler Scott Simpson of the Harbor School for testifying with me on behalf of the Alliance. Amazing!
TESTIMONY BEFORE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL
Joint Meeting of the Education, General Welfare,
and Economic Development Committees
September 18th, 2019
My name is Andrea Strong. I am a journalist, and mother of two elementary-aged public school children, and the founder of the NYC Healthy School Food Alliance, an advocacy organization working to revolutionize school food and food education in New York City. We are advocating for four policy changes which would ensure that the DOE (1) moves away from serving children highly-processed meals and instead prepares scratch-cooked meals, (2) brings nutrition and food education to every grade beginning in Pre-K, (3) plants culinary gardens at every school and (4) increases the duration that all children have to eat their lunches and play at recess to one full hour.
I started doing this work last year, after growing impatient watching obesity rates rise and health disparities widen. And that’s why I am here today to testify in favor of Speaker Corey Johnson’s Growing Food Equity in New York City policy agenda. His platform is inspiring and unparalleled in its scope. The policies contained in the 16 bills we heard today will change the way children are fed for generations, and how they learn about food and nutrition, forming healthy habits for a lifetime. We are in the beginning stages, but with the Speaker’s vision, we can see a future where children eat real food every day.
While I support all of the bills in Speaker Johnson’s Growing Food Equity plan, my testimony will focus on Int. 1676, requiring the DOE to come up with a scratch cooking implementation plan.
This bill is critical to prioritizing the health of our children, who are in crisis. Within New York City, 1 in 5 kindergarten students, and 1 in 4 Head Start children, is obese. Children as young as 8 years old are on cholesterol-lowering and blood pressure-lowering medication. Fifty percent of children under 15 have fatty streaks in their arteries, the beginning stages of heart disease.
In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found evidence of a significant relationship between unhealthy dietary patterns and poorer mental health in children and adolescents.
But this final statistic is the one that hit me hardest. According to a 2005 study by the New England Journal of Medicine, this is the first generation of children that may not outlive their parents because of the prevalence and severity of obesity is so great.
So what does school food have to do with all of this? It turns out, quite a lot.
Children spend over 6 hours a day in school on average and consume up to one half of their daily calories at school.
And in NYC, the Office of Food and Nutrition Services feeds 1.1 children a day.
In my mind, when a government organization is responsible for feeding nearly 1 million children half their calories every day, there is a responsibility, if not a legal duty, to ensure that its meals are not feeding our health crisis.
And yet that is exactly what our city is doing.
NYC is feeding our kids highly-processed bag-to-oven foods—mozzarella sticks, chicken nuggets, burgers, turkey roll ups, meat patties, Tostitos-branded beef filled taco bowls, and pizza — highly-processed fast food built by a big food system which does not care about the health of our kids, but only cares about the profits that they can make. And to wash it all down, chocolate milk sweetened with 8 grams of added sugars.
The dangers of highly-processed foods have been highlighted in a slew of recent research showing a direct correlation between processed food and chronic illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
It’s also worth noting that when highly-processed foods are introduced at a young age, we set kids up for a lifetime of diet-related disease.
And while this issue seems to be mostly about food, it’s actually about EQUITY, a word that our Chancellor likes to use a lot and to his credit has been working hard to expand in our middle school application processes and hopefully in our high school admissions processes as well.
Make no mistake. School food is about equity because obesity doesn’t strike everyone at the same rate. People of some racial and ethnic minorities, especially individuals with low socioeconomic status, are at disproportionately greater risk for dietary-diseases. Childhood obesity disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. In New York City, children living in the Bronx have the highest prevalence of overweight (43% vs. 4% in Brooklyn, 40% in Staten Island, 39% in Queens, 38% in Manhattan).
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the CDC, compared to New York City students, a higher proportion of East and Central Harlem students are overweight and obese. 35% of East and Central Harlem students in grades 9-12 are overweight and obese compared to 28% in NYC. Obesity rates in low income East Harlem are higher than what they are on the wealthier Upper East Side, just a few short blocks away.
This also plays out in the lunchroom.Two thirds of kids eating school meals don’t have the option of bringing lunch from home, they have to eat the processed food served at school lunch.
And when you take a closer look you see even more and more inequity in our school food system.
Why do some schools serve the “alternative menu” which contains two homemade meals a week, while others serve the fast food menu?
Why do some schools serve chocolate sweetened milk, which contains 8 grams of added sugar per container, nearly one third of the sugar allowances recommended by the World Health Organization and American Heart Association, while others don’t?
Why do some schools have gardens or grow towers where children can learn to grow their food and develop a relationship with the earth and others do not?
Why do some schools offer their kids robust hands-on nutrition and food education where kids learn the importance of reading labels and making healthy food choices?
And how can any of our school children eat their lunches when they only have 6-8 minutes to do so?
Why are we not prioritizing the health of our kids?
Why are we are setting them up for a lifelong struggle with diet and disease instead of giving them the best food toolkit for success?
We can no longer sit back while another generation of kids gets sick. In order to improve the health of our children and fight this crisis we need to move away from highly-processed foods. To get to scratch-cooking in a system this large we need a plan. This is the bill that will revolutionize the way we feed our children in NYC.
We need to understand how many kitchens must be renovated to ensure proper kitchen facilities exist. Is it more cost effective to renovate kitchens, to use a hub and spoke model to ferry food to local schools, or to create a series of borough-centered commissary style kitchens where food can be made in a central location and shipped out to local schools? We need this bill to evaluate what makes the most financial and logistical sense.
To serve delicious scratch-cooked foods that our children will want to eat, we need culinary training. We can’t simply expect food service workers to be able to cook food from scratch when all they are trained to do is open a bag of mozzarella sticks or chicken poppers and heat them to a safe temperature. We need a detailed outline of culinary staff training and development, and that training needs to happen at regular intervals throughout the year as menus change and evolve.
We need to understand what this will cost; this bill will require that DOE come up with a budget that summarizes the additional costs including infrastructure, labor, food, and training, to implement this program.
The bill would also require the DOE to provide detailed road map of the scratch-cooking programs roll-out with interim target dates so that scratch-cooking is achieved across all public schools within five years of submission of this plan.
When I started doing this work, quite frankly, people thought I was nuts. They said, you can’t change school food— it’s too big it’s too entrenched. But we can. What it requires is strategy and vision, both of which are codified by this bill. Make no mistake. Together we can and with this bill, we will.
My proposed edits to the bill can be found here.
Founder, NYC Healthy School Food Alliance